Decoding our History
The Museum of Anthropology on the second floor of Old Main gets visited by about 10,000 people annually.
The Search for the Story
By Matthew D. LaPlante
On one side of the room is an exhibit on human body modification. Tattoos and henna. Lip plates and neck rings. A replica skull from Peru, where the ancients sometimes practiced cranial binding — the effect of which, in a modern context, is positively alienesque.
Turn 120 degrees counterclockwise and you’re in Africa. An animal-skin drum that was made for King Edward Fredrick Muteesa II of Buganda. A wooden circumcision mask from the Bemba people of Zambia. Zulu beads in tans and reds and blacks. Another quarter spin, another part of the world. Textiles from South America. Over here, an exhibit on the afterlife in ancient Egypt. Over here, the history of the people of the Great Basin. If you’re looking for rhyme or reason or flow or fusion in this place, it might be helpful to know this: That’s not the point of this tiny museum. For this is a place of imagination, creativity and opportunity — where anthropology students come to learn to tell stories. Some 10,000 people are expected to visit the Utah State University Museum of Anthropology this year, but the point of these exhibits isn’t just to be exhibits. In this way, these display cases are like academic theses. What matters is not the bound volumes collecting dust on a shelf. And sometimes, it doesn’t even matter so much who cracks the bindings of those tomes. What matters is the learning, exploration and ideas upon which those volumes were built in the first place. That’s something most people don’t see when they visit a museum and rarely think about when they consider, for instance, how a primitive artifact might have made its way from the ancient past to a place behind glass. Archeological unearthing is just the tip of the process of discovery. The brunt of that process happens later. Sometimes much later. And that, as it turns out, is what is inspiring the students who work and volunteer in this museum to dedicate their lives to discovery. To take us on trips from Peru to Buganda. From the Zulu Nation to the Great Basin.
Anthropology student Jesse Magliari delicately labels a collection of stone tools.
CHOOSING WHAT STORY TO TELL It’s a school morning in Old Main and students awaiting their 9a.m. classes are sprawled out in the hallways, textbooks open, smart phones flashing. It’s a gauntlet of arms and legs, backpacks and coffee mugs. The hallways buzz. But in the south turret of this lovely old building, everything is still and quiet. Everything on this morning, that is, but Molly Boeka Cannon, who is always excited to show off the museum at which she has been the curator for two years. You could stand in here for hours, soaking in what is offered, but a tour of this one-room museum doesn’t take long. And besides, Cannon is eager to provide a peek at the place where these exhibits are born. Around the corner and through a locked door, in the museum’s collections room, Cannon retrieves a box. There, arranged neatly in plastic bags, are coins and ornaments and small clay vials from ancient Greece — part of a collection from Utah State history professor Frances Titchener. “These are so amazing,” Cannon says, “but the trick is to show not just how cool these things are but to also tie them into a theme. There’s a story in here and the students have to craft that in a way that is interesting but also informative.” That takes a lot of research, Cannon says. It’s unclear at this time, for example, whether all of the items in this box are part of one story, or several. The coins might be part of an exhibit on the way images on currency are used to convey relative levels of power and prestige and how that changes over time; such an exhibit wouldn’t just be about ancient Greece — it could tie into an ongoing debate in the modern United States about substituting presidential images on American currency with images of other individuals, particularly women. On the other hand, those same coins might be a starting point for an exhibit on what an ancient Greek citizen might need to go about his or her daily business — which might be an interesting thing to contemplate in a modern world in which the must-have contents of our purses and pockets are constantly changing. Anthropology students get to choose the story they want to tell — while learning how to balance their ambitions with budgets, space and the availability of artifacts.
The life-sized mammoth who resides in a mural in USU's Anthropology Museum watches over the museum's many corners of history.
“It’s definitely experiential learning,” Cannon says. “They come up with the idea. They do the research. They come up with the design and they put it together.” Because the USU Anthropology Museum is small and has a budget to match its size, the students become quite adept at identifying a diverse array of resources. And to that end, Cannon says, a university campus is a virtual treasure chest. “I think of us as pirates,” she says. “We steal stuff from other departments and use it how we want.” And not just artifacts — but the tools anthropologists need to engage in their work. By way of example, she says, over in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies there is an entire center dedicated to microscopy — where students can learn to use infinitesimal evidence to make monumental discoveries. “What’s nice is that, at our university, if you know where to look there are so many little pockets of resources,” Cannon says. MUSEUM OR GRANDMA'S ATTIC? Over time the students who learn to build exhibits at this museum become confident in their ability to do so elsewhere. That’s what Reigan Ware has done. The one-time English major — who on a whim took a museum development class “and never went back” — spent four years in the anthropology museum before graduating in the summer of 2015 with a degree in anthropology. Even before she had graduated, she was balancing her studies and work at the museum with jobs and internships in several other places, including the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville and the Daughters of Utah Pioneers museum on Logan’s historic Main Street. The latter place, Ware says, was a bit of a “grandma’s attic” when she arrived — and the staff there knew it. There were treasures here, they told her. There were stories to be told. But first, there were discoveries to be made. There was, for instance, a wooden bed. It was a pretty piece of woodworking but, alongside several other pioneer-era beds scattered across the museum’s three floors, it wasn’t remarkable. But it was, Ware says, the one-time property of Hezekiah Thatcher, one of the founding pioneers of Cache County. And it had been made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ larger-than-life president and prophet, Brigham Young. “I thought, ‘oh my gosh, this is here?’” Ware recalls. “Most people wouldn’t have even known. It’s discoveries like that that can help people relate in a different way.” Ware says that’s what she learned to do at the Utah State Museum of Anthropology — making discoveries, big and small, “to bring these stories out of the past and put them in people’s lives.” BEYOND THE FIELD WORK Like a lot of people, Emily King had long assumed that the exciting part of anthropology came during the archeological discovery of artifacts. And when she attended a field school course with Utah State archeology professor David Byers, she got to see first-hand how exciting it could be. But she also learned there was a lot of work to be done before an archeologist can pluck an artifact from the past and put it on display for others to see. “When I started it was like, ‘what? we’re not just digging?’” she laughs. “There’s so much more to it.” There was mapping and mathematics. There was geography and geometry and geology. King enjoyed all of those things, “but it was definitely good for me to see that there’s a lot more to archeology than just finding great finds,” she says. “You’ve got to look around and you’ve got to know what you’re looking for.” That experience helped her appreciate what she found in the Museum of Anthropology’s collections room and also got to experience as an intern in the immense collections areas of the sprawling Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. “In the back is where you really get the magic,” she says. “And that’s the cool part for the people who work in museums. They get to take these artifacts that have been found and continue the process of discovery — because even after that initial discovery, there’s still so much more to learn.” There will be for many years to come. Take, for instance, the shelf of six cardboard boxes that an anthropology undergraduate named Amanda Cook recently began sorting through. The boxes, the result of a lifetime of searching by an amateur archeologist from Logan named Bud Peterson, were donated to the university in 1982 — and museum staff members say it doesn’t appear the fascinating collection of arrowheads, hand tools and other artifacts have been much examined since they were taken from the ground in the 1950s and '60s. “It’s like we’re unearthing it all over again,” Cook says. At this point, it’s not clear where many of the objects were found. Some are labeled with general locations across Utah — tiny white paper slips read “Cook Cave,” and “Promontory Mountain”— but many have no labels at all. The museum’s staff members say they have a choice, in times like these, to be frustrated or intrigued. They’ve chosen to be intrigued. Cook unveils what appears to be an ancient stone-and-bone scraper. “Molly!” she cries out. “What do you think about this?” Cannon takes the tool in her hands and leans in, so close her nose nearly touches the shiny bone handle. It’s almost glistening in the light and that gives the museum curator pause. Is the tool real? A replica? Did Peterson or someone else, along the way, cover it with something to preserve it? What is the story here? “It’s hard to piece it back together because we just don’t know,” Cannon says. “When you take it out of the ground, you’re taking a big part of the story away.” But if there’s one thing at this museum that seems even more enduring than the artifacts, it’s hope — and Cannon notes with a smile that her staff has just learned some of Peterson’s journals are archived at Utah State’s Merrill Cazier Library. “Who knows what we might find in there,” she says. Behind her, the museum’s bilingual program coordinator, Annie Gamez, is preparing a traveling display of Mayan pottery. At the end of a long table, student Jesse Magliari is delicately labeling a collection of stone tools. Over here, an exhibit on Chinese railroad workers in North America. Over here, a fledgling display of art and artifacts from Papau New Guinea. And, over here, an empty exhibit case — just waiting for the next discovery.