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JOEL Joel's Blog

What Museums are For - A Visit to the Peabody


Miniature Canoes
Miniature Canoes

This is the last of my Boston museum series. Harvard University is located in Cambridge, which is across the river from downtown Boston. Like many universities, Harvard runs several very well done, small museums. The museums each take about an hour or so, and for the price of one admission for all the "science" museums (art museums have their own arrangement), we visited several. The Natural History Museum, which has their awesome collection of glass flowers, is displayed old school. That is, case after case of well-captioned interesting material. This was a very welcome museum. Enough stuff to gain interest, but not enough to be overwhelmed. The museum reminded me of the old mineral geology exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City when I was a kid. But of the Harvard museums we visited, the most interesting one for me was the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In this day and age, I think any ethnology collection always is open to charges of cultural imperialism, theft, and cultural appropriation, but at the same time this doesn't mean that the collectors and trustees of the collections don't have appreciation for the material. I liked pretty much everything in the Peabody, including the stuff from South America, and their retro kitchen.

But the exhibit that I found most amazing, and I think would interest everybody interested in woodworking, is their spectacular collection of native American birch bark canoes and ephemera. There are other collections like this that I have seen, but this is far and away the best. I'm looking at this as a woodworker, or at least a seller of woodworking tools, and the work was both fascinating and thought-provoking. I think everything on display dates from after the European encroachment, which means that people had iron and steel tools. I've written previously about English companies that made tools specifically for native markets around the world. But let me tell you, the tools that these North American people had, essentially knives and axes, were not a magic bullet. The skill level required to produce a birch bark canoe is not just about the skill of using an ax, it is also having an impressive of the understanding of the materials of the environment. This was my big takeaway from the exhibit: the final product is beautiful, but the idea that you can peel off bark from a tree and sew it together to form a boat that will go fast be strong, durable, and elegant has to make you think of how well they knew how to select a tree with durable bark that could be peeled off whole. And they only use several species - it wasn't a random choice.
Exhibit of materials used in building a Birchbark canoe
Exhibit of materials used in building a Birchbark canoe

As a tool maker and seller, I came away with two areas I wanted learn more about. The first: I would like to know a little bit more about trade tools in general. The second topic, which is a much more interesting question, is also a much harder one to research. The canoes shown in the exhibit are from the post-European arrival period. How did the arrival of Western tools, specifically steel tools, affect the design and production of Native American crafts? Did it allow for more sophisticated work? More production? Or essentially have no impact? Did designs change? For example, there is a Penobscot crooked knife that the caption says was in use for centuries. But what did they look like before steel arrived? What is the flint equivalent? Which works better?
In a closeup of the picture above
In a closeup of the picture above, we see examples of the awesome decorations that were applied to the bark and an example of a Penobscot crooked knife

I mention these questions not because no one ever thought of them before, or even that there isn't a body of literature on the subject, but the best thing about museums and public collections is they allow an individual, in this case me, to become interested in something. I can't believe I'm the first person to ask this question. My research will probably just involve doing a good library search and finding some proper information. But the museum is a trigger for this examination. What makes me tick is being curious about interesting problems. I sort of think of my world as one giant sock that's unraveling. And the fun part of life for me is pulling at that string and helping it unravel. Sometimes I mix up metaphors and there's gold at the end of the rainbow, and sometimes I find myself in a blind alley. But it's lots of fun.

Also on display was a Hoosier kitchen cabinet and an exhibit of Western tableware, reminding us all that our history and customs are worthy of preservation and study.
Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet
Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet

I'm not an explorer; I'm not putting on a backpack and going into uncharted lands of a Serengeti. But in some sense, we are all explorers for ourselves. I put on a backpack and went to Boston. I learned a lot. My mind was opened. I think I'm a richer and better person for the experience. That's what travel is all about.

What Museums are For - A Visit to the Peabody 5

Exhibit - working on the river
Exhibit - working on the river

Museum of Natural History - Geology
Museum of Natural History - Geology

Museum of Natural History - Animal
Museum of Natural History - Animal

Museum of Natural History - Glass flowers
Museum of Natural History - Glass flowers

Join the conversation
08/24/2022 Derek
Thanks very much for this great series! I had never thought about the Harvard museums....will now plan to take my son there...the photo's are great, and your writeup is very enticing. Thanks so much!
08/24/2022 Willy Bemis
Thank you for this blog post. I love the Harvard museums and I remember that we had a Hoosier Kitchen when I was a boy in Ohio.
08/24/2022 Sverre
Curiosity > Exploration > Discoveries! Love this post.
08/24/2022 Jess P Wheeler
According to Eric Sloane the original crooked knives where made from a curved beaver tooth. Hope that sets you in the right direction. Great Post!
I didn't mention it in the blog(forgot) but the Hoosier kitchen cabinet has this white dispenser on the left. I never saw one before and didn't know what it was. Turns out it is for flour storage and dispensing. Learn something new every day.
08/24/2022 Gary Coyne
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but to point to the Harvard flowers and say they were presented "old school" and leave it at that is like being in a museum, seeing some Maloof furniture, and saying that they saw a rocking chair.

The Harvard Flowers were made by father & son glassblowers Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka. These are an astonishing collection of 847 ACCURATE life-sized models of flowers so that botany students could see the details of flowers during the New England winters. To describe their beauty and accuracy is almost impossible; they have to be seen to be believed.

I can understand that a woodworker looks at a wooden chair much differently than (say) an auto mechanic or a philosophy lecturer. But that does not mean that they cannot revel in the beauty.

I do hope that sometime in the future, you're able to go back to Harvard and stop and LOOK at these flowers; hopefully, you will see what you missed during this visit.
08/24/2022 joel moskowitz
Do you understand what I mean about displaying "old school". Look at the pictures. Rows and rows of cases. I love it, but new exhibition practice would have far less on display, lots of graphics, and much more interpretation. I love just being able to enjoy the exhibits.
08/25/2022 Gary Coyne
I did pick that up, but still, your commentary just focused on the display and seemed to ignore what was being displayed.

I first saw these flowers in 2006. At that time, there was a "front" room that displayed a good range of what you were about to see; it gave the history and put what you were seeing into perspective. Then, as you were about to finish the room, you noticed an open door. Walking into that room, you saw more "old school" tables, as before, but twice as many. Astonished, you continue on your journey, looking at and reading everything. But wait, there was another door. This room was the same size as before. Looking back, I think there were three or four rooms of many, many flowers besides that entry room.

But as you mentioned, this was "old school" because it was for school! Again, these flowers were made for students to observe the flowers as well as the anatomy. Plus, these are more delicate than you could imagine. These old school tables were for their protection. But these are all properly scaled, with occasional zoomed-in flowers so you could observe how the bee would capture the pollen as it took the nectar (and yes, the bee was properly scaled as well).

I think it was in 2008 or 2009 that everything was boxed up for both repairs and for there to be a major "keep and toss." At least of what was going to be displayed. From what I understand, there are less than 25% on display from what I saw.

I did mention earlier that I was a bit biased; let me explain: I've been working with wood ever since I was in grade school. But my profession for over 40 years was a scientific glassblower. I made the kinds of things you see in science fiction movies (coiled tubes with things bubbling away), but I made them for real research. But despite all my years of work, I'd be very hard-pressed to make anything even close to resembling what these gentlemen did. Their work was extraordinary.

By the way, if you ever get back to Boston and go to the Science Museum, you can see some of the invertebrates that they made. It was these that gave them the fame and background to start the flower project. This project consumed the rest of their lives.

I hope you appreciate what you saw a bit more.
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