A Century of Collecting

Past Exhibition

A Century of Collecting examines artifact collecting as a form of cultural representation. All people live their lives surrounded by artifacts. Museum anthropologists collect and preserve these objects so that they can be compared with objects from other places and times, in order to generate broad knowledge about the commonalities and diversity of human cultures. Clearly, the more we know about their original contexts, recorded in documentation such as written notes, maps, or photographs, the better will be our understanding of the people who made and used these artifacts.

The anthropology museum at the University of California was established by an act of the Regents on September 10, 1901, based on an initial gift of collections and funding from its founding patron, Phoebe A. Hearst. After a century of collecting, primarily by university faculty and graduate students in anthropology, the museum now preserves approximately 3.8 million objects, spanning the world and several thousand years. It is the oldest and largest anthropological museum in the western United States.

Collections, however, are not direct reflections of cultural reality. Like the museums that house them, they are self-consciously created over time. Once ensconced in the museum, a diverse range of objects is treated as cultural evidence, irrespective of their original meanings or their often quite diverging motives for collection. On an institutional level, museums must constantly set goals and make choices among competing values, according to changing personnel and views. Some kinds of objects are collected at one time and then not again. Disciplines also change their definition of subject; new kinds of objects are considered collectible as new scholarly disciplines—such as historical archaeology or the study of tourist arts—arise.

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