Collections: California

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology’s general excellence in the documentation of California Indian cultures is due to museum curator Alfred L. Kroeber and his interest in the Americanist mission of cultural mapping. Accordingly, he set out to amass the largest and most comprehensive reference collection from the region, and in this he succeeded: currently, ca. 260,000 catalog entries, about 1 million objects (including archaeology), equivalent to about a quarter of the Museum’s entire collection.

Because of its publication in Alfred Kroeber's 1925 Handbook of California Indians and Robert Heizer's 1978 California volume of the Handbook of North American Indians, as well as innumerable other publications, the Hearst's California collection has served as the classic description of what California Indian culture is, with its presences as well as its absences, often unnoticed.

California Ethnology Collections

The California ethnology collections come from three main sources. The first California survey (ca. 1899–1908) represents the most extensive period of collecting of California ethnology in the Museum's entire history. Kroeber was assisted by faculty and students such as Pliny Goddard, Thomas T. Waterman, and Samuel A. Barrett (the University's first Ph.D. in anthropology, 1908).

A special collection was produced between 1911 and 1916 by Ishi, the last Yahi Indian. Among the objects that he made while living at the Museum were many beautiful and technically outstanding projectile points, made of obsidian and glass.

These were supplemented by a smaller second California survey (ca. 1925–1935), and by a third cluster of private collections, composed mostly of baskets (for example, Edwin L. McLeod's, donated in 1915, and Grace Blair du Pue's, from 1944). For the most part, their beautiful baskets, in excellent condition, had been made for sale and were not well-documented.

Content and Scope of the California Ethnology Collections

One of the great strengths of the collections is their systematic nature. That is, they were collected according to a coherent principle of selection, such as all the tribes in the state or representative cultural inventories for each tribe, and the cultural contexts of the artifacts were amply documented in notes, maps, photographs, film, and sound recordings. 

While the Museum is famous for its collection of 8,000 Californian baskets, there is a wide range of object types. Kroeber wanted to get the full scope of a culture’s material inventory—including tools and raw materials, as well as ceremonial items—in multiples whenever possible. He encouraged his students to obtain, as much as possible, objects that had been used by Natives in order that they could serve as documents of pre-contact aboriginal culture. 

Within Native California, the collections are regionally comprehensive, but there is an emphasis on the northern half of the state and especially on the Klamath River region in the Northwest, the area of Kroeber’s own interest.

Today, the Museum continues to acquire contemporary California Indian objects.

Ancient California Collections

From the prehistory of the New World, the Museum has certainly the world’s premier collection of California archaeology. This strength goes back to the very beginning of the Museum, when Phoebe Hearst sent Philip Mills Jones to excavate in the Channel Islands of southern California (1899–1902). During the following years, the local Bay Area shellmounds were extensively explored, first by Max Uhle (1902) and then by graduate student Nels Nelson (1906–11) and Edward Gifford and W. Egbert Schenck (1924–25). In 1942, the Sacramento Junior College transferred the large collection assembled by Jeremiah B. Lillard, largely from his excavations in the Delta region of central California.

By far, however, the Museum’s primacy in this area is due to the work of anthropology professor Robert F. Heizer and his students during the 1940s and 1950s (the University of California Archaeological Survey). Often working in advance of site-destruction of dams and road-building, they set out to formulate for the first time a complete regional and temporal reconstruction of the region’s ancient peoples. The UCAS collection, numbering 178,000 catalog entries, represents about two-thirds of the total collections from Native California.


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