haffenreffer museum

Steven Lubar

New Haffenreffer head hopes to hang a banner on Manning Hall to raise the museum’s visibility on campus.

Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

An emphasis on education

Steven Lubar, the new director of Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, hopes to expand its public exhibition space and make the collections a lively resource for teaching and learning.

By Mark Nickel  |  June 8, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Steven Lubar, professor of American civilization and director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, will begin serving a two-year term as director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology on July 1. He succeeds Shepard Krech III, professor of anthropology, who is retiring as director.

Since coming to Brown in 2004, Lubar has developed Brown’s public humanities program and established a robust program of student-designed exhibitions and programs. Previously, Lubar was a curator and department chair at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

The Haffenreffer Museum is a research and educational facility whose holdings number more than 120,000 ethnographic objects, archaeological specimens, and images from all parts of the world. About half of the artifacts were collected by museum founder Rudolf F. Haffenreffer before his death in 1954. The museum has been part of Brown since 1955 and has run a museum studies program with the Department of Anthropology since the mid-1970s.

The past five years have brought substantial changes to the museum. In August 2008, the Haffenreffer closed its longtime exhibition and storage space in Bristol, Rhode Island, overlooking Mount Hope Bay, after town inspectors deemed the facility noncompliant with new, stricter fire codes. The Bristol space has been renovated to provide climate-controlled storage for the collections and offices for museum staff. Meanwhile, a satellite gallery that opened in 2005 in Manning Hall on the main campus has become the official public showcase for the collections.

Today at Brown talked with Lubar about his plans for the museum.


On display: This zemi, or amulet, was carved from animal bone between 1200 and 1500 AD in what is now the Dominican Republic.: On display: This zemi, or amulet, was carved from animal bone between 1200 and 1500 AD in what is now the Dominican Republic. Where would you like to begin?

The first step is to make the museum better known to the Brown community. We have a great building [Manning Hall] right on the Brown Green. Right now, it offers one major exhibit for a year or more. I would like to do more exhibitions – monthly, even – to make that space livelier and more useful for courses. We might find other spaces on campus for display and teaching, too. The museum could show off collections, make space for classes, use objects in teaching. And I really want to put a banner on Manning Hall to let evryone know we have a museum on campus.

What is the current status of the Haffenreffer collections?

I was down in Bristol yesterday for a visit. People who haven’t been at the facility for a while would not recognize it. The collections now have good storage conditions and a good start toward digital cataloging. The fire marshal’s action [leading to the museum’s closing in 2008] was a wake-up call. Brown is taking its preservation work seriously. A lot has changed in the last year.

How do the Haffenreffer collections compare with other college museums?

The collection might not rank in the top ten nationally, but it is a good collection for a university of Brown’s size. It is very diverse, with objects from Africa and Asia as well as the Americas. As a teaching institution, the Haffenreffer Museum has great potential; we have a very good opportunity here to work with faculty and students across the University.

Museums have different goals and purposes. They collect and store, they educate, they support research. My impression is that the Haffenreffer Museum has a history of collecting and preserving. We will continue that, but we will also do more education. There is a new trend among universities to develop their museums as teaching facilities – more like libraries, available to be used.I want the Haffenreffer to be a teaching museum.

Will the Haffenreffer Museum find a new home in the next two years?

My hope is to set the museum on a direction that makes its educational value clear. If we do that right, it would not be hard to make a case for including a museum of anthropology in Brown’s next capital campaign. Moving it closer to Brown would be an important part of improving its educational value, and I certainly hope that will happen.

Right now, many people don’t know what the Haffenreffer Museum is or even that it exists. We can start to fix that by moving  the museum near campus.

I’ll be focused on tieing the museum and its collections back into the intellectual life of Brown and using it as a place for teaching and learning not only about anthropology and a wide range of other subjects, but also about museum work. I hope to make the museum more useful and to demonstrate how effectively it can be used for teaching and learning.