The Haffenreffer Museum has its origins in the early 20th century with the Native American collections of Rudolf F. Haffenreffer Jr. Haffenreffer was a brewer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts. In 1903, he purchased the King Philip amusement park and summer resort in Bristol, Rhode Island for use as a summer home. The property is important historically due to its associations with King Philip (Metacom), the famous Wampanoag (Pokanoket) leader.
Haffenreffer became deeply interested in Native American archaeology and history. He purchased local collections of Indian artifacts and made collecting trips to the Southwest. In order to house his growing collection, he built a museum, which he named the "King Philip Museum." Haffenreffer interacted with the local Native American tribes and sponsored meetings of the Algonquin Indian Council of New England. He was also active in the museum community and served for 22 years on the board of George Heye's Museum of the American Indian in New York City (now the National Museum of the American Indian).
After Haffenreffer's death in 1955, his wife and children donated the museum to Brown University. Brown, in turn, used the museum as the basis for introducing anthropology as an academic discipline. The university hired J. Louis Giddings, an Arctic archaeologist and recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, in 1956. Giddings renamed the museum the “Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology" and taught the first anthropology courses (then in the Department of Sociology). He also established the Circumpolar Laboratory to facilitate his program of field research in the western Arctic.
Giddings was succeeded as director by Alex F. Ricciardelli in 1968 and then by Jane Powell Dwyer in 1972, who founded the Masters program in Museum Studies within the Anthropology Department. The museum was guided by Barbara Hail, as Interim Director, from 1983 to 1988, when Shepard Krech III was appointed to the directorship. With the exception of Hail, each of these directors served with half-time appointments as director and half-time responsibilities as professors in the Department of Anthropology.
In 2004, Krech secured gallery space for the museum in Manning Hall on the main green in the heart of Brown’s campus. This gallery opened in 2005 and has been the premier place for exhibitions since that time, with satellite exhibitions in display cases in three other facilities on campus: the Rockefeller Library, the Steven Roberts ’62 Campus Center, and the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. In 2008, Brown closed the Bristol facility to the public due to fire code issues. The former exhibition galleries and education spaces were transformed into the Collections Research Facility.
In 2010, following Krech’s retirement, Steven Lubar (Professor of American Studies and Director of John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at the time) was appointed Interim Director. He established CultureLab in Manning Hall to provide opportunities for students and visitors to gain hands-on experience with objects from the Museum's permanent collection.