As an Arctic Archaeologist, the Haffenreffer Museum in Bristol was a special place of discovery for me. I came to Brown University in 1999 to complete a PhD degree in Anthropology with renowned Arctic Archaeologist, Doug Anderson. I had just finished up a Masters in geology at the University of Alberta, where I studied site formation processes affecting an archaeological site in the northern Yukon. I was eager to continue my explorations in the Arctic and had just finished reading Louis Giddings’s “Ancient Men of the Arctic” when I stepped off the plane in Providence. I was accompanied by my younger brother, Paul, who was coming to Brown for an undergraduate degree and to play on the Brown Men’s Hockey team. Continue reading
When I entered Brown’s Anthropology PhD program in 2003, I had no intention of interning at the Haffenreffer Museum (nor knowledge of the museum’s existence), but when the opportunity presented itself, I thrilled to it. I enjoy being around old things, exploring fashion far and wide, and holding objects in my hands while imagining their provenience. My first task at the Museum fit this bill – I worked alone in the quiet, dimly lit gallery, labeling and archiving a collection of Latin American textiles. I sewed tiny labels onto each article of clothing, taking care not to disturb the fabric’s warp and weft. Here I nurtured an affinity for material culture that I later parlayed into curatorial fellowships at Temple University’s Center for the Humanities and Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies.
In the first few days of my sophomore year at Brown, I sat down for a meeting with Matthew Gutmann, then the undergraduate advisor for the department of Anthropology, to review my coursework plans as a newly-declared concentrator. We discussed my interests and the fact that I was also concentrating in the History of Art and Architecture, and Professor Gutmann told me that there was a class I needed to take. He warned me that the professors might not seem inclined to give me a spot, since I was young and it was a graduate seminar, but that I should talk my way into the room no matter what.
Kristen and I arrived in Providence in a moving van in the summer of 1995 with very little money and no prospects for earning any. But I don’t recall us being too concerned about it; moving to Rhode Island was a grand adventure that gleamed through the rosy colored glasses of the young and newly-married. The plan was that I would start at Brown in the fall semester with a heavy student loan to cover the first year of graduate school and no assistantship, and Kristen, lacking any real experience in her field, would go looking for a job in education. But before that, I’d leave my wife immediately after our honeymoon—surrounded by unopened moving boxes in our new apartment in Providence—to spend the remainder of the summer on an archaeological excavation on the island of Newfoundland. What could go wrong?
Extremes in the attic and other stories – six years at the Haffenreffer
As a newly-arrived graduate student in the fall of 1990, my first contact with the Haffenreffer involved the reconstruction of the remains of a kayak frame that had originally been discovered abandoned and partially destroyed on the banks of the Noatak River in Alaska. Barbara Hail suggested the project to me after I mentioned having done my MA thesis on kayak typology and evolution. The Noatak kayak had been in storage at the Haffenreffer, first in the attic and later in the wine cellar (a cavern-like, semi-subterranean space behind the exhibit cases on the museum’s back wall). The kayak had been “rediscovered” in the latter the previous spring, but due to damp and insect damage it was in very poor shape. To arrest the insect damage, the disarticulated pieces of the frame had been packed in plastic tubing along with insecticide strips. Parts—specifically all the hull stringers and many of the ribs and deck beams—were missing and the ones still present were so brittle that it would have been impossible to actually assemble the frame. However, the remains did allow me to take measurements, study structural details, and reconstruct the form well enough to identify the type. Unsurprisingly, the kayak turned out to be an archetypal North Alaskan model with a narrow, cigar-shaped hull, a raised foredeck in front of the cockpit but a flat afterdeck, and the slightly upturned ends characteristic of river kayaks of the Noatak and also of the Nunamiut people further inland.