CAMBRIDGE — “Take a button,” Jeffrey Quilter urges a visitor to his office. Quilter, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, reaches into a bowl and hands one over. The button bears the Peabody name, the image of a Mayan maize god (the museum’s logo), and the number “150.” The Peabody celebrated its 150th anniversary earlier this month.
“Looking good,” Quilter says, inspecting the button on the visitor’s shirt. He could be describing the museum he heads. Its collection includes some 1.2 million objects. That’s almost three times as many items as are owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, the fourth largest art museum in the United States.
Not that the Peabody is an art museum. While many of the Peabody’s holdings are quite beautiful, their primary value is anthropological rather than artistic. Those items range from gorgeous Andean textiles to hundreds of quids. Quids? Chewed yucca leaves from the American Southwest. “People used to say, why do you have them?” Quilter chuckles. “They’re just masticated plant matter. Now they’re great sources of DNA.”
“We have Sitting Bull’s war club,” Quilter says. “We have things from the Little Big Horn. We have things from Captain Cook. We have one of the largest collections from Easter Island. We have the famous Lewis and Clark collection.”
Research expeditions still go out. Peabody staff and Harvard students continue digging at the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras. The difference is that finds now tend to stay in their country of origin. The cultural imperialism that gave birth to the Peabody is a thing of the past.
“We are still collecting — modestly, yes,” Quilter says. “In the museum world, people say a museum that doesn’t collect is a dead museum. But we’re very careful about what we collect, because where you gonna put it?”
The Peabody owns so many things that only the merest fraction are on display. Quilter estimates the figure is 1/10th of 1 percent.
Much of the collection is in an annex about a five-minute walk from the museum. Jane Pickering is the director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, which includes the Peabody. “The first time I went there it was astounding,” she says of the annex. “It really is like the end of the first “Indiana Jones” movie. You see an exquisite ceramic, then notice there are 20 of them on the shelf.”
For all its riches, the Peabody has a low profile outside of academe. True, its red-brick facade popped up during last week’s “Boston” episode of “The Simpsons.” And last year it had an attendance of 236,000 visitors. But that figure is somewhat misleading, since it’s shared with the better-known Harvard Museum of Natural History. The two buildings connect, and visitors can enter through either museum. And as Quilter points out, the natural history museum has better parking, is closer to the Harvard Square T stop, and isn’t on a dead-end street, as the Peabody is. The HMNH also has a signature attraction, its permanent exhibition of glass flowers. The Peabody isn’t known for any one thing.
Yet within the museum world, that combination of variousness and indefinability is one of the Peabody’s great strengths. “You can never put a box around it,” Pickering says. “Whenever I do an exhibit or talk to people about exhibits or programs, everyone always wants something from the Peabody. Whatever you’re covering — even the art museum — they rarely do something without something from the Peabody.”
As an academic museum, the Peabody’s first priority is scholarship and teaching. But both Quilter and Pickering want the general public included. “My goal for the audience,” Quilter says, “is to get adults back in the museum. Because if you talk about the Peabody Museum, what you commonly hear is, ‘Oh, I remember going to the Peabody when I was a kid.’ And when they’re old enough they bring their children. But one of the curious things in the larger firmament of the museum world is why is it that adults go to art museums and kids go to all the other museums? A great museum like this is great because it has things to tell children of all ages.”
The Peabody has been in the same building since 1878, which makes it older than some of the objects on display. The museum feels a bit creaky and cramped. This both adds to its charm and makes it seem a bit like a backwater. The Peabody is less than half a mile from the up-to-the-minute interior of the Renzo Piano-renovated Harvard Art Museums. Mileage aside, it feels closer to a million miles away.
“We do have this 19th-century Victorian building,” Quilter says. “We’ve the iron staircases and other ironwork. I think it’s great. They don’t build them that way anymore. We have this treasure house of architectural embellishments. When we get the chance to do some major renovation in the future, the challenge for any architect will be how to preserve the great features of the Victorian experience but also modernize it.”
The Peabody has successfully navigated a similar challenge as regards its mission. Partly, the challenge was ideological. An age of imperialism, which saw the emergence of cultural anthropology as a discipline, gave way to one of nationalism and globalization. Partly, the challenge has been functional: what museumgoers expect from an institution like the Peabody.
Quilter puts it this way: “People in the 19th century wanted to see a Rembrandt, let’s say. People still want to see a Rembrandt. So in a sense the basic impetus for going into an art museum hasn’t changed. But for a museum like this one [it has]. In the 19th century — even prior to World War II — if you wanted to learn about foreign cultures, how did you do it? One way was you’d go to a museum like this. Now people go to Morocco for a week, or wherever. Our role as informers about different world cultures has really changed. We’re no longer the only game in town.
“Now people go to Peru and get real excited about the archeology there, then they hear about an exhibit here and come see it. . . . People want that authenticity, and that’s what we have in depth.”
PEABODY MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND ETHNOLOGY
11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, 617-496-1027, www.peabody.harvard.edu/visit