The history of the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology began in 1837 with the relocation of the University to Ann Arbor and the creation of its first University Museum. The Anthropology Museum was formally established in 1922, and moved to its home in the Ruthven Building in 1928. For nearly a century since then, the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology has been a vital center of archaeological research and teaching.


The Foundations: 1837–1922 +

The origins of the Museum of Anthropology can be traced to the establishment of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1837. In legislation authorizing the creation of the University, the state legislature approved the formation of a “Cabinet of Natural History” on the new Ann Arbor campus. Although a formal museum building was not constructed until 1881, collections quickly began to flow into the University, and were initially housed in faculty offices and department basements. The original mission of the University Museum was the study of natural history. However, the collections soon included archaeological and—with Professor of Geology Douglass Houghton’s 1840 donation of a Chippewa canoe—ethnographic objects. By 1850, the Museum included a division of “Relics and Archaeology.”Joseph Beal-Steere, 1887, Bentley Historical Library

It was not until the 1870s that the Museum began to acquire well-documented anthropological collections. The Smithsonian Institution was a major contributor, donating ethnographic artifacts from Alaska, the Pacific, and the U.S. Southwest. During the 1870s, the University of Michigan launched a five-year collecting expedition under U-M zoologist Joseph Beal Steere (photo at right, 1887, Bentley Historical Library). Steere journeyed up the Amazon, across the Andes, and by boat to Taiwan and Southeast Asia—all the while shipping crates of plant and animal specimens and cultural artifacts to the University Museum.

In 1881, the University completed its first Museum Building to house the University’s growing collections. The museum was reorganized into six separate museums: The Museum of Fine Arts and History, The Museum of Applied Chemistry, The Museum of the Department of Medicine and Surgery, The Museum of the College of Dental Surgery, and The Museum of Natural History, the latter including geology, botany, zoology and anthropology.

Anthropological collections continued to be added to the Museum over the next four decades. In 1885, the Chinese Imperial Government donated its entire exhibition from the 1884–1885 New Orleans World Cotton Centennial to the University in recognition of University President James B. Angell, who had served as U.S. minister to China in 1880–1881.

Archaeological objects in the University Museum collections began to be used in formal training in archaeology in 1892 when Harlon I. Smith, a first-year undergraduate from Saginaw, arranged for Professor Francis Kelsey to offer the first archaeology course taught with museum artifacts. Smith also organized the University’s first permanent exhibition of anthropological collections.

In 1906, Alexander G. Ruthven was appointed curator of zoology in the Museum of Natural History. By this time, the 1881 Museum building had become crowded with collections, so the geology collections were transferred to the Department of Geology, and in 1913 the Museum was formally renamed Museum of Zoology, with Ruthven as its director. Ruthven (who became president of the University in 1929) was passionate about the University Museums’ contributions to scientific research and education. He oversaw the construction of the Museum building (which opened in 1928) that now bears his name.

The First Decades: 1922–1944 +

The steps toward creating a separate Museum of Anthropology began a decade before the new building opened. Early in the twentieth century, the University considered launching a major archaeological expedition in the U.S. Philippines. In 1922, the University hired Carl E. Guthe, a former U-M undergraduate and recent PhD in anthropology from Harvard (photo, left), to direct this expedition; Guthe agreed, with the understanding that the University would create a separate Museum and Department of Anthropology, and so the Museum of Anthropology was formally established in 1922 and the Anthropology Department a year later. Guthe spent three years directing excavations in the Philippines, shipping major archaeological and ethnographic collections back to the University. He returned to Ann Arbor in 1925 and was formally installed as the first director of the Museum of Anthropology, moving into the Museum’s new home in the Ruthven Museums Building in 1928.

At its creation, the Museum had two divisions: the Archaeology Division supervised by Guthe, and the Great Lakes Division, with the recently retired dean of the Homeopathic Hospital Wilbert B. Hinsdale as Custodian in Charge. Over the next decade, Guthe quickly added staff—borrowing a biological anthropologist from Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) and an Asian specialist (Benjamin March) from the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Above all, Guthe wanted the Museum to be a research museum—its collections generated through carefully documented scientific excavations and its curators leading researchers who made significant contributions to anthropological knowledge. Guthe also believed that museum collections were essential to teaching in the University’s new Anthropology Department; like Ruthven, he was committed to the idea that students should learn about the natural and cultural world through direct encounters with objects in museum collections.

Guthe originally envisioned the Museum as encompassing all areas of anthropology. However, over time, the Museum increasingly focused on archaeology, developing an exceptionally strong archaeological program with major collections and research projects in North America, the Great Lakes (particularly Michigan and Ontario), and Asia. Special laboratories—including the nation’s first Ethnobotanical Laboratory (started in 1929) and the Ceramics Repository (in 1931)—were created to analyze archaeological materials. Researchers from across the country sent samples to the Museum for analysis, and the Museum quickly became a national leader in anthropological archaeology.

In 1932, Melvin Gilmore, Curator of Ethnology (photo, right), published a small book describing the Ethnobotanical Laboratory, thus establishing the Museum’s Publications program. In ensuing decades, the program expanded, setting a precedent for producing data-rich monographs featuring excellent scholarship, meticulous research, and leading-edge, vibrant interpretation; this program continues today.

The Griffin Years: 1944–1975 +

After shepherding the Museum through its first 20 years, Guthe left the University of Michigan in 1944, leaving behind a staff of four: James B. Griffin, curator of Archaeology; Volney H. Jones, director of the Ethnobotanical Laboratory and Ethnology Division; Kamer Aga Oglu, curator of the Division of the Orient; and Emerson Greenman, curator of Great Lakes Archaeology. Griffin (photo on left) was appointed the Museum’s interim director in 1944 and director in 1946, a position he held until his retirement in 1975. Griffin continued the Museum’s commitment to scientific fieldwork and research, establishing the Radiocarbon Laboratory in 1950, only the second lab of its kind in the country. Griffin also continued the Museum’s longstanding commitment to graduate education, serving on more than 40 doctoral committees.  

Dr. Griffin worked to solidify curatorial appointments within the university museums. In 1956, the Museum of Anthropology, along with the Museums of Paleontology, Zoology, the Herbarium, and Exhibit Museum of Natural History, were designated as units within the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In addition to retaining their research and curatorial positions in the Museum, curators entered into expanding teaching roles in the Department of Anthropology, with half of their academic appointments in each unit.

In the late 1960s, Griffin decided to expand the geographical and theoretical coverage of the Museum by adding curators who worked in areas never before represented, such as Latin America and the Near East. Griffin's antipathy for the late Lewis R. Binford was well known, but he startled everyone by hiring three of Binford's former students: Robert Whallon (Europe), Henry Wright (Near East) and Kent Flannery (Origins of Agriculture). He then added Jeffrey Parsons (Latin America) and C. Loring Brace (Human Osteology). Soon Richard I. Ford succeeded Volney H. Jones (Ethnology and Ethnobotany) and Karl Hutterer succeeded Kamer Aga-Oglu (Asia).  Greenman's long-vacant Great Lakes curatorship was filled by Christopher Peebles (photo at right). Our Anthropological Archaeology program was soon rated number one in the country. 

1975–Today +

Jimmy Griffin’s retirement in 1975 marked the end of 31 years of enlightened leadership. It was decided then that the directorship would rotate among the curators so that the burden would be shared. Richard Ford was the first to follow Griffin. In the 1970s, Dean Billy Frye created a curatorship in Latin American Archaeology for Joyce Marcus. A newly created curatorship for North America was filled by John Speth, and John O’Shea succeeded Chris Peebles (Great Lakes). Carla Sinopoli succeeded Karl Hutterer as Asian curator. Most recently, in a move that would undoubtedly please Jimmy Griffin greatly, Robin A. Beck became Curator of North American Archaeology and inherited Griffin’s fabulous ceramic repository.

The Museum has a history of creating new collections and changing or combining others. We refuse to be locked into a static set of categories and curatorships. More changes are anticipated for the future, as we try to stay ahead of new trends in Anthropological Archaeology. 

  Graduate student A. Wright in lab

Throughout our history, the Museum has been greatly enhanced by the contributions of numerous research scientists, visiting scholars, staff, and students—too numerous to mention here, but essential to dynamic and innovative research and teaching, and to the development, study, and care of the important research collections that we curate.