Art

Peabody Essex Museum gains ownership of controversial collection

A 19th-century fishhook made by a Haida or Tlingit artist is among the objects in the Andover Newton Theological School collection.
Peabody Essex Museum
A 19th-century fishhook made by a Haida or Tlingit artist is among the objects in the Andover Newton Theological School collection.

The Peabody Essex Museum has agreed to take ownership of a controversial collection of objects from the Andover Newton Theological School, whose handling of the items has drawn repeated warnings from the federal government for its failure to adhere to a law governing the return of sacred cultural objects to Native American and native Hawaiian peoples. 

The Salem museum has also agreed to complete the seminary’s work to comply with the law, negotiating the possible return of some of the more than 150 Native American and native Hawaiian objects to their rightful tribal heirs.

As the financially struggling Andover Newton transitions from its longtime home in Newton to Yale Divinity School, those involved say the transfer of ownership is the best outcome for the collection, which has long vexed the seminary.

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“It’s been a surprising but extremely gratifying outcome, given the long and interesting history involving the collection and the relationship between our two institutions,” Peabody Essex director and chief executive Dan Monroe said. “I’m delighted that they have offered to gift it to us, and it will assure that this important collection will remain a benefit to the public and remain in public hands.”

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Andover Newton president Martin Copenhaver called the arrangement a “win, win, win: for the school, the museum, the collection, and the various tribes and people represented by the collection.”

“This presented itself as the ideal option,” he said. “Peabody Essex Museum is well-equipped and experienced in caring for collections like this.”

The group of more than 150 Native American and native Hawaiian objects — which includes a 19th-century baby carrier, a ceremonial fish hook, and a wampum belt — is part of a much larger collection begun by 19th-century missionaries. The broader collection contains some 1,100 objects, including textiles from India, pottery from the Middle East, and Zulu beaded adornments.

Under the terms of the agreement, the entire collection will transfer as a gift to the Salem museum, which began housing the collection in 1946.

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In recent years, however, it has caused tremendous strife between the two institutions.

Rarely exhibited, the collection remained largely unknown until a few years ago, when the seminary — facing a financial crisis amid declining enrollment — began exploring the possible sale of approximately 80 of the collection’s most valuable items.

Peabody Essex Museum director and chief executive Dan Monroe.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2015
Peabody Essex Museum director and chief executive Dan Monroe.

News of a possible sale created a rift between the museum and the seminary, as Monroe, who helped craft the 1990 law governing such objects, warned the seminary that the collection might be subject to its dictates. The law, known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, applies to various objects of cultural patrimony, mandating that affected tribes must be told of their existence so they can make a determination for each item and request their return if desired.

“We suggested that until they resolve that issue there would be a cloud over any sale,” Monroe told the Globe at the time.

As relations soured between the two institutions, Monroe reached out to Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, who requested a governmental investigation.

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“We didn’t know anything about it,” Worl, whose organization represents several native Alaskan peoples, said of the collection at that time. “These objects embody the spirits of our ancestors.”

In 2015, federal officials charged that Andover Newton had flouted the law, advising that the seminary begin informing tribal leaders who might have a claim on objects in the collection.

The 210-year-old seminary, after years of declining enrollment and flagging revenues, is relocating to New Haven, where it will join the Yale Divinity School. Copenhaver said the seminary is holding one more year of classes in Newton Centre before transitioning entirely to Yale.

In the meantime, the repatriation process has continued to bedevil the school.

“It’s been a considerable focus for us but it’s still challenging for a small organization that is in transition,” Copenhaver said. “There’s a steep learning curve.”

Last spring, federal officials again warned the school that it was out of compliance with the law, which carries a maximum penalty of around $6,000.

In the months since, however, Copenhaver said the school has sent out more than 400 letters to members of nearly 300 tribes or groups informing them of the collection.

“We’ve heard back from 59,” he said. “Some of them were simply to say that they did not want to pursue the consultation process. In other cases, they actively want to engage in the repatriation process.”

Copenhaver said that as the seminary moves its operations to New Haven, there were brief discussions of transferring the collection to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Yale Divinity School dean Greg Sterling said that while he did raise the possibility of transferring the collection to Yale, no offer was made and the university opted not to continue those conversations.

“Those materials had been at the Peabody Essex Museum for a long time, and there’s a justice to having them remain there,” said Sterling, who added that repatriation was a lengthy and potentially expensive process. “That seemed to be the wisest course of action.”

Copenhaver added that he approached Monroe about the gift. “This is something we initiated,” he said. “I’m optimistic that it will be well stewarded, that the objects that need to find homes back with the tribes will do so, and that through this process we can honor Native American tribes, their culture, and do so through these objects.”

Worl, whose tribe has made a claim on a ritualistic halibut hook in the collection, said she was “absolutely elated with this agreement.”

Monroe, who estimated the museum has spent more than $700,000 over the years conserving the collection, said the museum will take over repatriation responsibilities from the seminary.

“That has been a central concern of ours,” he said. “It’s our intent to complete the work that [Andover Newton] has begun. We will complete the process they’ve started and do it expeditiously.”

As for the rest of the collection, Monroe said there are no immediate plans to mount a temporary exhibition around the collection. He added, however, that many of the collection’s objects will be integrated into the museum’s permanent galleries, which are scheduled to be reinstalled in the coming years.

“It’s a very good fit,” said Monroe, who added that the collection complements the museum’s current holdings. “It assures that the collection will be readily accessible to the public, researchers, and used for exhibitions and programs.”

A figure, circa 1830 (left), and a baby carrier, circa 1835, are among the items in the collection.
Mark Sexton and Jeffrey Dykes/Peabody Essex Museum
A figure, circa 1830 (left), and a baby carrier, circa 1835, are among the items in the collection.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.