Our Story

The Peabody Museum is an anthropology museum, meaning the collections are related to the lives of people from around the globe, both past and present. In 1866, philanthropist George Peabody committed funding that led to the creation of the Peabody Museum, a place for the study of anthropology, which was a new academic discipline at that time. Still occupying its original 1877 building on Harvard University's campus, the museum is a vital part of learning at Harvard while also welcoming Indigenous communities and the general public.   

The Peabody's Origins and History

Under the Peabody’s second director, Frederic W. Putnam (1875–1909), the museum contributed to professionalizing the emerging field of anthropology. Putnam trained students in new methods of archaeology that he developed, and advocated learning about people from their cultural material —an emphasis that continues to this day within anthropology. This early history is explored in All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology .  While the Peabody’s early research focused on the Americas, the museum now stewards material from all around the world, making it one of the most significant collections of human history in existence. 

The Peabody Museum was founded during a different time, when museums were popular sites for entertainment as well as education. As one of the oldest museums of anthropology, the history of the Peabody is intricately linked to legacies of colonialism and imperialism both in the United States and around the globe. These legacies influenced the museum’s past practices of collecting, researching, and displaying collections from a Western perspective. 

The field of anthropology and the purpose, values, and approaches of museums have significantly changed since the Peabody’s founding in 1866. Our goal today Is to critically examine past practices that negatively stereotyped and were harmful to the Indigenous communities who interacted with early anthropologists. These past practices have marked the discipline and the collections, resulting in historical exclusionary and racist terminology that can at times still be found in the collections today.

The Peabody Today

The Peabody aims to be an ethical steward of the collections in our care and provide access to and care of collections in a manner founded on respect for descendant communities and those for whom the collections hold cultural value. We recognize the perspectives and positions of these communities in regard to their cultural heritage, and we commit to acknowledging and engaging with our own complex institutional and disciplinary histories. Through dynamic partnerships with individuals and groups both on and off campus, we actively encourage and facilitate knowledge generation  and transformative learning experiences

Today, the museum serves as a public space for people to celebrate diversity and learn about the many ways people live and exist. Exhibitions, programs, and research promote dialogue, challenging as well as celebrating our individual and societal ideas about humanity. While our practice and focus have changed since 1866, the Peabody Museum remains committed to the broad aim of anthropology. What does it mean to be human? How can we think critically about our past(s) and present(s) in order to envision potential futures? We welcome/invite Harvard affiliates, cultural heritage stakeholders, and members of the general public to engage with us in these questions. 

The museum is a member of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture which manages a dynamic schedule of public programming for the Peabody and other museums that are part of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences. The museum galleries are open seven days a week. More information about visiting can be found on the visit page.

The museum is also actively working to improve its sustainability practices. To learn more about these efforts, please visit Sustainability at the Peabody Museum.