Date August 4, 2017
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Sixty at 60: A living history of the Haffenreffer Museum

As Brown’s museum of anthropology celebrates its 60th anniversary, the legacy of its influential early director and the museum’s impact on alumni from across the decade is finding new audiences through a blog and exhibition.

Carved boat with text - Sixty at 60: Six decades of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —J. Louis Giddings, a pioneering archaeologist and scholar of Arctic and Native American cultures, arrived at Brown in 1956. Hired to direct the recently acquired Haffenreffer Museum of the American Indian and to establish a program in anthropology, Giddings is credited with transforming the donated collection into a publicly accessible museum and a teaching and research center with a global vision.

Tragically, Giddings died in a car accident just eight years after arriving at Brown — yet his work, advice and the museum he created greatly impacted the studies and careers of those who came into contact with him and with the museum he created. Through the Arctic studies program he created, the Circumpolar Laboratory and Giddings’ emphasis on studying indigenous peoples and native cultures, his influenced the work of hundreds of students, faculty and staff who became involved with the Haffenreffer long after he was gone.

As Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2017, Giddings’ legacy is finding a new audience through “Sixty at 60: Six Decades at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology,” a blog with posts and perspectives from individuals involved with the museum from the 1950s to the present.

“Our goal in Sixty at 60 is to bring together reflections, recollections and thoughts about the museum’s future from at least 60 people whose careers at Brown and beyond were touched, guided or transformed through their involvement with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology,” said Kevin P. Smith, deputy director and chief curator at the museum.

In conjunction, an exhibit titled “Northern Horizons, Global Visions: J. Louis Giddings and the Invention of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology” will remain on display in Brown’s Manning Hall through the fall.

To date, the blog has 36 entries — excerpted here are just a handful. Complete posts, along with many others, can be found on the Sixty at 60 blog.

Samuel M. Mencoff, Class of 1978

Chancellor, Brown University
Founding Partner and Co-CEO, Madison Dearborn Partners

“My study and fieldwork at Brown, in conjunction with the Haffenreffer, left me with an enduring appreciation for how, through the examination of humanity’s past, we may gain a greater understanding of ourselves and the world that we inhabit today. In this way, the critically important work that the Haffenreffer does every day in conserving and interpreting humanity’s past is so essential to illuminating its future.”

Stephen L. Dyson, Class of 1959

SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Classics, University at Buffalo

“Giddings offered me a student assistant job, and for three years the Haffenreffer Museum was a major focus of my life at Brown. Our mission was to turn a private collection organized around the interests and tastes of a collector into a university museum, which served a variety of constituencies. That involved the creation of displays that made the rich collection more understandable for the general public, the expansion of the range of objects on view beyond the core North American holdings, the creation of a rudimentary educational program, and the preparation of a catalogue of the objects held by the museum. I became involved in all aspects of those developments. I went onto a career in classical archaeology… and my current research still reflects that cross-disciplinary perspective. I owe much of this to the time spent with Louis Giddings.” 

Hannah Sisk, Class of 2013

Registrar Assistant, Frick Collection, New York

“The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology is a perfect microcosm of the larger Brown University community. Still early in my career, I remain so grateful for the hands-on experiences and encouragement I received from Haffenreffer. Equally important to the professional skills imparted, I learned the importance of kindness and true mentorship from the Haffenreffer Museum’s faculty and staff.”

Zoe Weiss, Class of 2012 and Warren Alpert Medical School Class of 2016

Doctor of Internal Medicine, Rhode Island Hospital and Miriam Hospital

“During my time at Brown, I was offered the opportunity to work as a faunal analyst and to aid in an excavation of prehistoric remains through the Haffenreffer Museum’s Circumpolar Laboratory and Brown’s Arctic Studies program within the Department of Anthropology… By the end of a two-year period, I could identify the left distal tibia of an arctic hare without blinking, and had memorized the skeletal features of countless North American birds and mammals. Even now I can close my eyes and imagine the feel and texture of a seal metacarpal or a ptarmigan (arctic bird) humerus… While I ended up ultimately pursuing a career in medicine, my experiences studying Arctic archaeology, excavating and working at the Haffenreffer Museum molded me as a person and as a doctor.”

David W. Gregg, Class of 2000 (Ph.D.)

Executive Director, Rhode Island Natural History Survey

“The Haffenreffer Museum is one reason my Ph.D. took 11 years. But it is also the main source of skills and experience I draw on daily in what has so far been a 14-year career as the director of a small nonprofit that systematically organizes historic and modern information on Rhode Island’s biodiversity and interprets it for students and the public.”

Phyllis Rabineau, Class of 1973 (M.A.)

Vice President for Interpretation and Education (Retired), Chicago History Museum

“I arrived at Brown in the fall of 1970, intending to pursue a Ph.D. in historic archaeology. But in my second year of studies… my interest was re-directed and I began to understand the potential for museum collections to serve as a significant resource for understanding societies through their material culture. This newfound interest suggested a career path that I decided to explore… The search for my first job took up most of two years but resulted in a 40-plus-year career committed to museum service, including positions in collections management and exhibition development at the Field Museum of Natural History; senior management for interpretation and education at the Chicago History Museum; and, most recently, board governance at Intuit, an innovative organization dedicated to outsider art. These, and many other meaningful experiences that have comprised my work life, all originated in the evocative surroundings of a graduate seminar amid the Haffenreffer Museum’s collections storage.”

Bill Simmons, Class of 1961

Professor of Anthropology and former Provost, Brown University

“Dr. Giddings believed strongly in the importance of pure research, a concept that was new to me as a formal distinction. He gave a talk on pure research to the Brown student body at a weekly Chapel Meeting in Sayles Hall. I recall sitting in the audience with Judy Huntsman and others from the Museum and how proud of him we were. The concept of pure research freed me in a way, because since my experience as a child member of the Narragansett Archaeological Society of Rhode Island people would ask me, ‘What is the use of that?’ I had assumed that the value of such knowledge was self-evident and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t self-evident to others.”

Julie A. Esdale, Class of 2009 (Ph.D.)

Archaeologist, United States Army Garrison Fort Wainwright, Colorado State University

“The Haffenreffer was a place where we could study stone-tool technology, listen to lectures by visiting archaeologists, and imagine the journeys of both our archaeological predecessors and the people that created the sites we studied… I am the archaeologist for the Army in interior Alaska and manage archaeological sites on 1.5 million acres of land… I think back frequently about my years at Brown and my studies at the Haffenreffer. My graduate education expanded my world to new experiences, new tastes and new ways of thinking. I will always fondly remember exploring the Haffenreffer collections, touching prehistoric artifacts, and musing on the ancient people that must have made them.”