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Welcome to the Haffenreffer Museum blog, a place for museum staff and guests to reflect on the work of the museum. Visit the museum web site to learn more about us.

Reflecting Change: “City • Plaza • People” Revisited

A group of students in “Methods in Public Humanities,” a course taught by Steve Lubar at Brown University this spring,  have been working to bring a version of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s exhibit “City • Plaza • People” to Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

Raina Fox, writing on behalf of her fellow students Ann Kremen, Lara Savenije, Selen Senocak, and Nate Storring, reports on the group’s work to both expand the audience for the original exhibit and participate in an ongoing conversation about the plaza’s redevelopment.


The Haffenreffer’s exhibit City • Plaza • People was researched, designed, and mounted by students in Rebecca Carter’s course “Urban Life: Anthropology in and of the City,” last fall. Based on ethnographid research in Kennedy Plaza, it was structured to highlight the history, present use, and possible future manifestations of the plaza; it included a series of panels, a video of people moving through the plaza, an iPad with digital content, and a series of photographs of people holding signs reflecting their hopes for the plaza. The exhibit was an impressive feat, though its reach was somewhat limited by its location on Brown’s campus, a concern shared by students who worked on the original exhibit. As students in Public Humanities, our goal was to explore ways to make this project more public, by linking the information explored in the exhibition to those for whom it might be most relevant.

CPP_haffenreffer exhibit

“City • Plaza • People” on display at the Haffenreffer this spring.  Photo and illustration by Nate Storring.

Our project coincides with an important moment in Kennedy Plaza’s ongoing development: a new plan for the space, revealed by Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy (DPPC) on April 18, will soon begin to reshape the plaza and the ways that people interact with it. In this new vision of the plaza, the bus operations that currently make up the heart of the space will be moved to its outer edges, allowing the middle of the space to be reimagined for public use.

CPP_GKP1Kennedy Plaza “Before” and “After.” Illustration by Union Studio Architecture.

The plan envisions the plaza as a more pedestrian-friendly environment with trees, public art, activities, dining and shopping opportunities, arts and cultural events, space for public organizing, and safer, more pleasant travel experiences for those using mass transit. By increasing the number of simultaneous activities in the plaza, DPPC hopes to embrace the concept of the power of ten – originally developed by Project for Public Space – which holds that successful public spaces have at least ten complementary activities at any given time, with visual access between them. Depending on funding, reconfiguration of the bus stops and improvements in front of City Hall could be completed as soon as 2014 with other elements likely to be completed by 2017. According to a study by the Rhode Island Transit Authority, 45,000 people pass through the plaza each day, making these changes relevant to tens of thousands of people. As an extension of the Haffenreffer exhibit, we see our project as an opportunity not only to share some of the changes the plaza has experienced in the past, but to help people to shape their own informed opinions about the changes coming to the plaza.

In our initial meetings, we struggled to identify the shape and goals of our project, most notably due to the complexity of the needs we sought to address. One of the most persistent challenges we encountered was the need to identify and then respond to an incredibly diverse and undefined audience. This diversity is not only a question of age, gender, language, or ethnicity, but also of use. People come to the plaza for many different reasons- to eat lunch in the middle of their workday, to wait for a bus, on their way home from school, to pass the time when there is nowhere else to go. We found it difficult to identify an approach that would be multiply meaningful to these many different audiences.

We ultimately decided to create a series of thematic panels to insert into Kennedy Plaza itself, which would be light, quick, and cheap to implement. We thought carefully about the design and placement of these signs to make them as accessible as possible, and brainstormed a series of themes that could potentially encompass elements of the plaza of interest to viewers.

We researched, wrote, and designed eight panels; sought appropriate rights and permissions for all images and quotes included; researched and priced materials to print and install these panels; and built connections with DPCC. Upon receipt of the appropriate funding and approval the panels can be easily printed and installed in the plaza.


Envisioned Kennedy Plaza exhibit. Photos and illustration by Nate Storring.

Each panel follows a similar format, including a title, large image, smaller text broken up into easy to read sections (in the form of a quote, caption, and short body paragraph), and smaller images.  The eight panels focus on the following themes:

  1. The Unfinished Plan for Downtown Providence, 1970
  2. Occupy Providence and Political Movements in the Plaza
  3. Words of Our Presidents: Political Speeches at the Plaza
  4. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument
  5. The Statue of Ambrose Burnside
  6. Getting Around Providence
  7. Providence’s “Superman Building,” the Industrial Trust Tower
  8. The Struggle of Life: The Bajnotti Memorial Fountain

Our engagement with “City • Plaza • People” began as an attempt to bring an exhibition to Kennedy Plaza. Yet the experience proved to be more about the process than the product, and about learning to work with a variety of student colleagues and community partners. We were inspired throughout by the enthusiasm with which our ideas were received by people in the community, and encouraged that our efforts seemed to be of interest to the general public.


Thank you, Raina! We’ve enjoyed working with you and are glad to be involved in both the ongoing conversation about the redesign of Kennedy Plaza and the effort to engage with Providence’s many constituencies. And we look forward to seeing your panels installed downtown soon.

We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

“Toys: Curated by Small Hands”

Today’s post is by Alexandra Goodman, Master’s student in Public Humanities at Brown University and Education Intern at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. She reports on her recent education and exhibition project, “Toys: Curated by Small Hands.”


“If you’re in a museum. . . whisper hooray (hooray!), If you’re in a museum, for many awesome reasons . . . If you’re in a museum whisper hooray!”

Students from the Redwood Classroom singing the Museum Manners song at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

The sound of four-year-old children singing the Museum Manners song echoed in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology this spring, as they participated in a program that resulted from a partnership between the Museum and the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education. During my studies in Public Humanities, I have focused on ways to provide learning opportunities for young children in public institutions. I began working with Haffenreffer staff in the fall of 2011 to develop a program for early learners in the Museum. Our first partner in this project is the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center, whose supportive and innovative teachers and staff encourage preschoolers to learn through play and interaction with peers, teachers, and places outside the classroom.

With the assistance of Emily McCartan, my fellow Education Intern and Master’s student in Public Humanities at Brown, and under the guidance of Geralyn Ducady, Curator of Education and Programs at the Haffenreffer, the program evolved in the fall of 2012 into a year-long series of sessions conducted in the classroom and at the Museum for all four classrooms at the Center. The exhibit featured here is the final project prepared by the four-year-old classrooms at the school, the Redwood and Willow classrooms. During the fall, Emily, Geralyn and I led sessions where students began learning about the Museum, anthropology, and object handling. We brought objects from the education collection at the Museum to the classroom for students to handle and explore.

In the spring of 2013, Redwoods and Willows students began visiting the museum. Their first visit provided a chance for them to get familiar with the Museum and interact with objects from the collection in the museum setting. Before their second visit to the Museum, teachers brainstormed with students to select a topic for their exhibit. Students decided they were interested in learning about the types of toys children use around the world. With the support of the Museum curators, we brought a large number of toys from the collection to the Museum for the group to choose from during their second visit. Once they selected objects for the exhibit, the two classes worked on text and interpretive materials. Some of the children’s labels were displayed beside the objects, while the additional labels, drawings, and responses by the students are featured on an iPad which is included in the exhibit.

Students from the Willow classroom handling a toy truck from the collection

The result was amazing. The exhibition reflects how four-year-olds view and understand these objects. At the opening event, students appeared to take ownership over the exhibition and enjoy showing their work to their families and friends. This project is the culmination of a lot of hard work by all those involved: the children, teachers and staff at the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center, and staff at the Haffenreffer. It has been a wonderful partnership. In the future,  we hope to continue to promote the Museum’s involvement in early education programs and exhibits curated by small hands.

Alex Goodman (left) and Emily McCartan (right), standing with the final exhibit curated by students at the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center


Thank you Alex, and congratulations to you and Emily on a great project and fun exhibit (and the squirmiest opening reception of all time)!

For more information about the exhibit, see  “Toys” is on view at the Haffenreffer’s galleries at Manning Hall, open 10-4 Tues-Sun.

Connecting Collections to Communities

This week’s blog post is from Anna Ghublikian and María D. Quintero, Master’s students in Public Humanities at Brown University.

The sense of wonder that begins while driving to the Haffenreffer’s Collections Research Center in Bristol, Rhode Island culminates as you get lost in the rows of objects collected from around the world. Amongst the collections, over a dozen light blue archival boxes are full of recently acquired hand-woven Maya garments. This donation consists of approximately 200 textiles, thousand of images, and several boxes of correspondence. It reflects a lifelong project of Brown alumna, anthropologist, and Maya textile expert Margot Blum Schevill.

As we made our way through this collection of textiles we realized that we wanted to share it with the public. A practice rooted in tradition, Maya weaving remains an essential form of expression to this day. Nearby in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a group of Maya immigrants from Guatemala have formed a collective to continue weaving on the back-strap loom. Building on Maya weaving as a form of storytelling, we were interested in exhibiting these textiles to share the lesser-known history of Guatemalan immigrant groups. According to census data, the population of Guatemalans in New Bedford has exponentially increased over the last decade to 1,532 people in 2010. We created a space for a contemporary community to connect with this collection with the extraordinary assistance of an amazing student team, Haffenreffer staff, New Bedford Whaling Museum staff, and the Brown University Center for Public Humanities.

Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives opening reception on March 1, 2013 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. From left: Co-Curators María Quintero and Anna Ghublikian with NBWM Director James Russell. (All photos courtesy of Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities.)

The colors and motifs of Maya textiles reflect meaning both personal and collective, local and transnational. Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives: Maya Textiles from Guatemala and New Bedford was on exhibit at the New Bedford Whaling Museum from February 18 to April 7. We selected some textiles and images from the Haffenreffer collection and textiles woven by the local collective Oxib’B’atz’ (Three Threads) so that visitors to the exhibit could see their similarities and differences for themselves. We wanted to showcase the impressive craftsmanship of the Maya weaving process. The objects carry with them meanings that are inscribed by the makers. The creative practice approach of our exhibit allowed viewers to both engage with the inscribed meanings and histories and also reflect on their own experiences. The textiles themselves proved an incredibly powerful medium from which to engage and form connections across various communities.

Weaving demonstration by Oxib’B’ats’ weaving collective

The most rewarding result of this exhibit was providing a space where this immigrant community was represented in a positive manner. The textiles on display build pride in the local Guatemalan community’s historic artistry. This exhibition was merely a first step in promoting appreciation and understanding across cultures. The museum welcomed the local Maya community, providing a new place of access. The textiles on loan from the Haffenreffer were connected to that of Oxib’B’atz’ forging a links across time and space: joining the past with the present, and Guatemala with New Bedford. With the vast collections at the Haffenreffer there are endless possibilities to use the artifacts in order to open dialogues across communities.

~ Anna Ghublikian and María D. Quintero, co-curators of Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives

More photos from Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives


Thank you, Anna and Maria! This is a great project, and we’ve enjoyed working on it with you, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and the Center for Public Humanities. You’ve made important contributions to our understandings of the Schevill collection, and connections to other institutions and contributions.

Learn more about Margot Blum Schevill’s work in the Haffenreffer catalogue Costume as Communication.

We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

Arctic Research at Brown and the Haffenreffer

Model kayaks at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s Collection Research Center in Bristol, RI. From left: Kirk Dombrowski (CUNY) and Thierry Gentis (HMA Curator). (All photos by Christy DeLair.)

A few weeks ago, Kirk Dombrowski (Associate Professor of Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and John Jay College) visited Brown University to give the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s Shepard Krech III Lecture, on “Understanding Arctic Communities on the Brink of Self-Governance,” and a workshop on “Reaching ‘Hard-to-Reach’ Populations for Research in Anthropology, Sociology, and Public Health.” While he was here, Dombrowski visited the Haffenreffer’s Collections Research Center in Bristol. Dombrowski’s visit was funded by donors to the Shepard Krech III Lecture fund, the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs, and ARCUS, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States.

Looking at halibut hooks in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology collection, Bristol, RI. From left: Thierry Gentis (HMA Curator), Kirk Dombrowski, and Nate Dombrowski.

Kirk Dombrowski describing use of halibut hooks.

These Northwest Coast halibut hooks (above) inspired a wide-ranging discussion about locally caught halibut, connecting reflections on Dombrowski’s upbringing in the Northeast to his work on the Northwest Coast and comparing 19th century Haida fishing technology to contemporary Northeast fishing techniques.

Kirk Dombrowski touring the Haffenreffer’s Collections Research Center.

These Nunamiut or inland Inupiat caribou skin masks (above) also caught our attention. Made in the mid-20th century in Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, they were collected between 1973 and 1991. These masks, and the other objects pictured here, are part of the museum’s extensive collection of Arctic and Sub-Arctic materials, and a part of a 55-year history of Arctic research at Brown.

You can learn more about this history, this relationship, and the Arctic itself in upcoming lectures sponsored by the Haffenreffer. Douglas Anderson (Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Laboratory for Circumpolar Studies, both at Brown) will give the Barbara A. and Edward G. Hail Lecture, entitled “Initial Peopling of the Americas: New Questions, New Answers,” on Wednesday, April 10, at 5:30 in Salomon Center Rm 001. Kevin P. Smith (Deputy Director of the Haffenreffer) will speak on “Volcanoes, Gods, and Men: REVEALing a Viking Age Ritual Landscape beneath Iceland’s Interior” on Wednesday April 24, at 5:30 in Salomon Center Rm 001. Further information about both talks is available on our calendar page.

Exploring the Haffenreffer’s Lithic Collection

Today’s post is from Colin Porter, who will defend his dissertation in Anthropology at Brown University this spring. He reports on research conducted as a proctor at the museum in fall 2012.

Archaeologists endeavor to understand changes in human behavior over time through the systematic analysis of its physical residues: hand axes, ceramic shards, cigarette butts, and whatever else people have left behind. However, environmental conditions—soil acidity, free-thaw cycles, sea level change, and so on—conspire to leave archaeologists with only faint traces of past cultural activity.

Despite more than 12,000 years of human occupation in New England, the region is notorious for poor artifact preservation. Here, archaeologists often identify archaeological sites dating to before the era of European colonization (ca. 1500 AD) by a scatter of stone tools. The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology currently curates more than 50,000 stone tools, many collected from sites near the Collections and Research Center in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Rows of Worm boxes
Lithics in storage at the Haffenreffer’s Collections and Research Center.  (All photos by Colin Porter.)

Archaeologists have long observed that the size and shape of lithic, or stone, tools vary predictably across space and time and offers rich data for cultural analysis. In particular, triangular dart and arrow points—those lacking stems and notches—are commonly found on archaeological sites across northeastern North America. Since the 1960s, archaeologists have classified these artifacts as one of four types based on their size and shape: Squibnocket (small and heart-shaped), Beekman (small and equilateral), Madison (small and isosceles), or Levanna (large and equilateral).

Triangluar point types
Triangular point types

However, triangular points are often difficult to classify in practice. Specimens excavated from archaeological sites were often broken when they were deposited in the soil. Others intergrade—they bear characteristics of two or more types—which makes classification difficult, if not impossible. In recent years, some archaeologists have decided to give up the existing typological framework altogether.

As a museum proctor during the fall semester, from September to December 2012, I conducted an independent study of 623 triangular points from HMA’s lithic collection. I classified, measured, and recorded formal characteristics of each point (curvature of base and sides, material, and presence/absence of a tang). Then I performed a hierarchical cluster analysis, a type of quantitative analysis, to group the artifacts based on shared similarity. Finally, I performed a spatial analysis to examine the geographical distribution of different clusters.

The study revealed an alternative taxonomy of triangular points based on tool morphology. When these clusters were mapped, some clusters showed different geographical distributions. In particular, the presence of a basal tang, which appears on both Madison, Squibnocket, and Levanna types, is confined to a relatively small geographical area around the northern coast of Narragansett Bay. This evidence of intra-regional variation in material culture suggests differences in other, more ephemeral cultural practices.

Exploratory analysis of existing collections can not only generate new hypotheses for future evaluation, but also lead to better classification of specimens in the museum. While archaeologists know relatively little about the expanse of human history in New England, we are constantly learning more. The HMA’s lithic collection, one of the largest in the region, has been essential to this mission, and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future.

Thanks, Colin! Readers, you can learn more about Colin’s research on colonialism, material culture, and social memory in northeastern North America at

And please note: we welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

Congratulations on 30 Years: Traveling Near and Far with Thierry

Back in December, Thierry Gentis, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology Curator, celebrated 30 years with Brown.  Things were busy then — we finally get around to offering Thierry our belated but heartfelt congratulations with this post from Rip Gerry, HMA Exhibit Designer and Archivist.

When I was asked to write something short about working with Thierry in the “early days” at the Haffenreffer Museum, my initial response was: “sure, no problem.”  Then I thought “wait . . . do I have to be nice?”  In that case it will have to be short!”

When I think back to those early days, the first thing that comes to mind are road trips.   Thierry and I always seemed to be traveling in the museum’s van to pick up wondrous donations.  One of the journeys that comes to mind is a trip to Washington D.C. to pick up a West African collection being given by Bill Mithoeffer — and struggling to load up some very large heavy stone sculptures. During one trip to Philadelphia to pick up Cameroonian artifacts from Igor Kopytoff we were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.   More than once we found ourselves in New York City to pick up donations of African art from William Brill, and were “forced” to join Mr. Brill for a martini lunch.  And there was a trip to central Ohio to retrieve Ferdinand and Beverley Bach’s donation of Northwest Coast model watercraft.  This drive is especially memorable because of the summer heat: we were on the lookout for a lake so that we could take a refreshing swim. These journeys and more are filled with good memories.

While we also took a fair share of short trips out to Cape Cod or up to Boston for the day, many of our road trips required overnight stays, and we benefited from some free time to explore the local sights.  We of course ventured into the museums and galleries to critique the displays, and I often also found myself in curio and antique shops with Thierry.  In our prowling of the shops as in our visits with generous donors, the thing that amazed me, as it still does, is Thierry’s ability to identify any artifact, no matter how obscure, and then to relate some little known fact about that type of cultural treasure.

Those who are lucky enough to be part of a tour or class led by Thierry  will know that I am not exaggerating when I say: “No one knows the collections as well as Thierry.”

~ Rip Gerry, HMA Exhibit Designer and Archivist


–Thank you, Rip.  And congratulations Thierry — here’s to many more happy years at the Haffenreffer!

See pictures of Thierry’s recent travels around campus below.

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See you in January

The blog is on hiatus for Brown’s winter break. We’ll be back in mid-January with information about the new term, graduate student research in the collections, and more. Until then, best wishes for 2013!

~ Jennifer Stampe, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology

A note from the editor: We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact