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What's in Stanford's Attic

Students learn museum skills sorting treasures of Leland Jr., Jane and others.

Photo: Fred Mertz

COUNTDOWN: Newble expects to finish cataloguing next summer.

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By Marguerite Rigoglioso

A weathered, fringed mink pelt hangs in a display case at the Stanford Archaeology Center. The card underneath tells you it was part of a dance skirt used by the Northern California Hupa tribe in a ceremony for “world renewal.” Long before anyone was worrying about inconvenient truths, Native Americans were dancing in prayer for the well-being of the local biodiversity—the deer, salmon, acorns and other natural bounty they depended on.

The “mink dance skirt” is one of about 50 international cultural artifacts now on view in a special exhibit titled Object Lessons: Highlights from the Stanford Archaeology Collection. The show was put together entirely by eight students taking a new course on caring for museum objects taught by Lisa Newble, the archaeology collection's first full-time collections manager in years. Tasked with cataloguing the 30,000 items in the University's stored collection, Newble plans to make its treasures more accessible to the Stanford community and the broader public.

She also wants to turn students and patrons into more sophisticated viewers of archaeological and ethnographic materials. “People need to look critically at museum displays and realize they're always seeing cultures through someone else's interpretation,” says Newble, who came to Stanford last November from England.

Thirty years ago, for example, displays on the Hupa—and nearby Yuruk and Karuk tribes—drily focused on artifacts as signals of “wealth.” But when Newble's student Kayla Carpenter, whose ancestry represents all three tribes, uncovered the cultural treasures of her own people at Stanford, she became determined to convey a different message. A junior majoring in Native American studies and linguistics, Carpenter saw the course's hands-on final project—create your own museum display—as an opportunity to present her ancestors in a more accurate light.

Carpenter selected, researched and mounted a dozen tools, garments and food implements, using information she obtained directly from tribal elders. In doing so, she discovered what has become the central theme of her presentation: her ancestors' sense of “sacred sustainability.”

Among the other displays featuring musical instruments, tribal dolls, hunting tools, personal ornaments, pipes and ceramics from various cultures, one arranged by Megan Kane, MA '08, conveys the early history of the Stanford archaeology collection itself. The intrepid Leland Stanford Jr., who from a very young age scouted about the world for exotica, had aspirations to turn his collection into a museum. After he died from typhoid fever on an expedition in Europe, Jane Stanford took on the task in his honor, dramatically en-larging the collection through purchases and donations. The artifacts were moved off campus after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and, after several other relocations, have landed unceremoniously in an old dot-com's former office space in Redwood City. “I spend four days of my week cataloguing everything,” says Newble, who has a background in archaeology, anthropology and museum curating from Cambridge and Leicester universities in England, as well as six years of experience managing the University of Cambridge's Whipple Museum of the History of Science. “The Stanford curatorial position was perfect because it allowed me to return from science to my main field of interest,” she says.

Newble's job includes sorting through shelves and pallets filled with archaeological and ethnographic artifacts that were acquired by the Stanfords, donated by alumni, and even deposited by old-time Stanford faculty from their own digs. Nearly every continent is represented, and some items, such as stone flints, span back to the prehistoric era. “Opening each box is a bit like Christmas,” Newble says. “We're rediscovering the collection.”

Newble plans to have the objects catalogued online by next summer. In addition to making them available for students in her course to learn the art of curating, she hopes to find a more permanent home for many of them on campus. “We're getting a lot of support from the office of the dean of Humanities [and Sciences],” she says.

Meanwhile, it's unlikely that the Stanford archaeology collection will expand anytime soon. “There are ethical issues involved in obtaining cultural objects that require serious consideration,” Newble says. “We must be careful not to acquire looted objects, for example.” Newble says “owning” another culture's ancestral belongings carries with it a big responsibility. “Part of our mission at the Stanford Archaeology Center is to set the tone for the ethical collection and care of the patrimony of other countries and cultures,” she says.

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