Institutional Histories Initiative

The Peabody Museum is pleased to announce the launch of its newest project, The Institutional Histories Initiative (IHI). Aimed at critically examining the Peabody’s history, policies, and practices, IHI is a collaborative, multi-year, cross-departmental program with three primary goals:

  • To evaluate and critique past practices at the Peabody and locate those historical approaches within the fields of anthropology and the history of museums
  • To interrogate collecting relationships and practices as defined by larger social and cultural contexts that led to growth of the Peabody's collections
  • To situate the Peabody's role and experience within Harvard University as a teaching and research museum and the contributions of that institutional relationship to broader goals of knowledge production

As one of the oldest museums of anthropology, the history of the Peabody Museum is intricately linked to legacies of settler colonialism and imperialism both in the United States and around the globe. The Peabody was founded on the practice of collecting the cultural heritage of diverse communities in ways that were tied directly to nation-building: Harvard-funded exploration and research in the name of anthropological practice was the mechanism by which cultural heritage was removed from origin communities. 

We must now undertake the critical work of interrogating the Peabody's complex history, honestly reflecting on past practices, so that we may better partner with origin and stakeholder communities openly and transparently. As the current stewards of cultural heritage from communities through time and around the globe, what aspects of our past need to be investigated and addressed? How can different stories of collections and collectors be drawn together with historical policies and practice to unpack and confront the Peabody's challenging and often traumatizing history? As an institution, the Peabody must recognize the far-ranging and long-term nature of this work, which has impacted nearly every aspect of our practice from field collection and documentation to museum display and interpretation. 

While our work begins with just a few projects. we will be continuing to add additional projects to support the Institutional Histories Initiative as an ongoing, long-term approach to self-assessment and reinvention.

IHI Projects Initiated in 2021-2022

Professional Development

  • Establish training in a variety of areas to provide staff with a framework for community outreach around the globe, creating a model and protocols for communicating and connecting.

Collections Documentation

  • Address the historic use of problematic and challenging language found in collections data, removing racist and harmful terminology, and prioritizing Indigenous terminology and language as well as community self-identified names over westernized ones.

Challenging Collections Course

  • New course taught by Peabody Museum curatorial staff to address the histories of specific problematic collections and their relationship to the production of anthropological knowledge at Harvard.

Future Projects:

  • Exhibition Histories will survey archival, photographic, and published sources to examine the Peabody's 150 years of exhibiting world cultures through a lens of ethical stewardship.
  • Provenance Histories seeks to better document and assess the Peabody's history of collecting, including voices represented and omitted, bringing to light past practice rooted in colonial taking.
  • Biographies will look at those individuals who helped shape the Peabody's past and the impact of their approaches and legacies. 

Learn more about the Peabody's commitment to ethical stewardship.

Please contact with questions, comments, and suggestions.