The American Museum of Natural History's Division of Anthropology includes many of the world's most respected anthropologists, who conduct research around the world and steward an extensive collection of cultural artifacts amassed over more than a century. The groundbreaking work of Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, and many other early Museum anthropologists has shed light upon the richness of human cultures past and present. The public face of the Division comprises a series of exhibition halls that explores the traditional cultures of Asia, Africa, North and South America, and the Pacific.
The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, the Museum's oldest hall, showcases the research conducted during the Museum's first major field expedition, the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897-1902), considered one of the most important anthropological field studies ever made. Organized by Museum President Morris K. Jesup and led by Franz Boas (1858-1942), known as the "father of American anthropology," the expedition set out to investigate the cultural and biological links between people living on both sides of the Bering Strait, with the hope of determining whether or not America was first populated by migrations from Asia. The cultures featured in the hall occupy North America's shores from Washington State to southern Alaska. The artifacts, folklore, and artwork displayed document and celebrate the customs and artistry of the Kwakiutl, Haida, Tlingit, Bella Coola, and other peoples. Exhibits include exquisite totem carvings, clothing, tools, and masks.
These halls showcase artifacts such as cooking utensils, clothing, weapons, and jewelry from traditional Native American cultures in the East and in the Plains. The Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians focuses on the traditional cultures of the Mohegan, Ojibwa, Cree, and other Native American peoples living in the Eastern Woodlands of North America. In addition to artifacts, this hall features models of Eastern Woodlands lodgings, from the wigwam of the Ojibwa to the longhouse of the Iroquois. The Hall of Plains Indians focuses on the cultures of the mid-19th-century Blackfeet, Hidatsa, Dakota (Sioux), and other peoples of the North American Plains, and is also home to one of the Museum's greatest treasures, the Folsom Point. This flint arrowhead, found near Folsom, New Mexico, in 1926, provides irrefutable evidence that there were humans in the Americas as early as the last ice age.
Africa, a continent of nearly 12 million square miles and more than 700 million inhabitants, boasts a rich array of cultures. The Hall of African Peoples explores this great diversity, highlighting the traditional lifestyles and customs of people living in Africa's grasslands, deserts, forests, and river regions. The religious, political, economic, and domestic aspects of life are highlighted through artifacts and dioramas. On display are masks, musical instruments, farming tools, religious idols, ceremonial costumes, and more. Dioramas depict a variety of scenes, from the Berbers of the desert in North Africa to the Mbuti pygmies in the Congo. Also featured are the Yoruba, Pokot, and Bira peoples, among others.
The Museum's holdings in Asian ethnology constitute one of the finest such collections in the Western Hemisphere. This extensive collection provides the foundation for the Hall of Asian Peoples, the Museum's largest cultural hall. The hall explores such topics as prehistoric Eurasia and the rise of civilization, early Asian cultures, and Asian trade, and includes such vastly different and diverse regions as Korea, China, India, Armenia, and Siberia. The hall also documents the rise of the great world religions of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Highlights include the shaman diorama, which faithfully re-creates a late 19th-century healing ceremony of the Yakut of Eastern Siberia. The scene depicts a shaman who has come to heal a woman whose soul has been captured by evil spirits. Also featured in the hall is an ornate wedding chair, which would have carried a traditional Chinese bride to her new life with her husband's family. The chair is covered with auspicious symbols to invite good fortune.
The diverse art, architecture, and traditions of the Maya, Toltec, Olmec, Aztec, and other Mesoamerican pre-Columbian cultures are the subjects of this hall. The outstanding collections on display include monuments, figurines, pottery, and jewelry that span from around 1200 B.C. to the early 1500s. Each object provides clues about the political and religious symbols, social traits, and artistic styles of its cultural group. Especially striking works on view include Costa Rican gold ornaments and a 3,000-year-old Olmec jade sculpture called the Kunz Axe, which may represent a chief or a shaman who transformed himself into a jaguar to partake of the animal's power. Also displayed are 9th-century Mayan stone carvings depicting scenes of conquest. Existing as early as 1500 B.C., the Mayan culture did not consist of a single empire, but rather was a collection of independent city-states that alternately warred and traded with one another.
This hall explores the pre-Columbian cultures of South America as well as the traditional cultures living in the region today, encompassing the ancient Inka, Moche, Chavin, and Chancay cultures as well as the many peoples of modern Amazonia. Especially evident in this hall is the exceeding importance of textile art among the ancient Andeans; this artistic tradition, which conveyed status and identity, harks back at least 5,000 years. Andean achievements in metallurgy were also remarkable. Throughout the hall, works of exquisite craftsmanship abound, as in the Royal Llama of the Inka from Bolivia. The figure, approximately 500 years old, is made of silver and its blanket is cinnabar trimmed with gold. Also on view are examples of spectacular Amazonian featherwork, including a headdress made from toucan and macaw feathers that once adorned a young man from the Rikbaktsa tribe. This object and others like it demonstrate the importance of ornamentation among the indigenous cultures of the Amazonian rain forest.
The renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) worked in the Museum's Anthropology Department from 1926 until her death. Through her groundbreaking expeditions to Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali, Mead brought anthropological work into the public consciousness. Her studies provide the foundation for the Hall of Pacific Peoples, which reflects a remarkable geographic and cultural diversity. The Hall explores the cultures of the South Pacific islands, which range from tiny stretches of land to the island continent of Australia and include Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Highlights include a display of elaborately painted and adorned dance masks from Northern New Ireland, part of Papua New Guinea. Made of wood and bark fibers, the masks represent specific spirits and are used in traditional dance ceremonies. Also on view are intricately detailed shadow puppets from Java. Originating in the 11th century, Javanese puppet theater is used as an educational tool to communicate information about religious tenets, moral codes, history, and myths.