With abundant intellectual and physical resources at their disposal, many universities and colleges across the US are well-positioned to offer their communities access to fantastic museums. University art museums and museums of natural history or science are especially common, but a third type accessible to the public is the museum of anthropology.
Anthropology museums focus on people in society, whether 4,000 years ago in a faraway place, or 100 years ago in your own state. How did people live back then? What were their social customs, and how does that relate to us today? These and more questions can be answered vividly at one of the spectacular museums of anthropology profiled below.
Our initial pool of 35 university anthropology museums was narrowed to the 15 profiled below. We assumed that these museums involve their students in research and administration to a significant extent. We rather searched for museums that were public-friendly as evidenced by a diversity of public outreach programs offered at the popular level (informal lectures, family friendly activities, K-12 kids’ programs). Thus to be profiled below, a museum’s website had to specify the kind of public programs it offers. We also ranked museums by accessibility (number of days open, admission price, and web communications). Lastly, we considered the age of the institution as an indication of its educational experience. In the case of a tie in points, we rated the older institution higher. Note: while some anthropology museums do have a significant archaeological component, we choose not to include museums primarily devoted to archaeology.
15. California State University, Sacramento Anthropology Museum
Though not a large collection, the Anthropology Museum at Sac State aims to serve the campus community and the Sacramento metropolitan area. “Native California” is a Mobile Classroom Program reaching out to local schools with K-12 lectures and experience-based learning to bring anthropology to life. On campus, the museum acts as an arm of the Anthropology Department to train students, particularly in Museum Anthropology.
14. Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology
The Museum of Anthropology at ASU educates visitors about how cultures adapt to their environments and create meaning within them. ASU students can enroll in the Museum Anthropology Program, and residents of the Phoenix area can come for a special Dia de los Muertos event. General admission is free and the museum is open five days a week.
13. University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology
This museum has a particular focus on the history of Missouri’s Native American populations and pioneer peoples, but also considers human societies around the world through its millions of artifacts. This includes the world’s most comprehensive archery collection. Students in grades 1-5 will want to check out Experience Cultures of the World for hands-on interaction with the museum. Pictured above is a room from 19th-century Missouri life.
12. Wake Forest University Museum of Anthropology
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Founded in 1963, the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest is the only museum in N. Carolina dedicated to world cultures. Public outreach includes Summer Camp for students ages 6-12 and the Teen Workshop on Talking Textiles. With 28,000 artifacts from around the world, the museum is well-used in Wake Forest classes and student research.
11. Colgate University Longyear Museum of Anthropology
Hamilton, New York
The Longyear Museum at Colgate focuses on Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with Colgate’s own findings forming the heart of the collections. Particularly strong is the collection of Northeastern archaeological findings. Elementary and high school students can follow museum itineraries that align with NY state social studies content, or even have museum artifacts brought to their school. Museum is free and open six days per week.
10. Utah State University Museum of Anthropology
Tracing its beginning back to 1962, Utah State’s University Museum of Anthropology offers its students the possibility of earning a Museum Studies Certificate, a training which could lead not only into museum work but also zoos, national parks, and libraries. Several public outreach programs are offered, including Family First Saturdays (every first Saturday of the month). Here families can come and learn about a new culture through dancing, listening to music, eating authentic food, and lots of crafts (ages 3-12 and all those young at heart). Also check out the Bilingual Program and Teaching Trunks.
9. Brown University Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology
Providence, Rhode Island
The Haffenreffer helps the whole university community and public reflect on culture and the material world through exhibits, public lectures, and performances. The collection was donated to Brown in 1955 from the Haffenreffer family, who had an intense interest in Native American artifacts. This donation was the University’s impetus for founding an anthropology department. The Circumpolar Laboratory is a particular focus of research activity at the museum. Think Like an Archaeologist Program is offered for public school students, and the Culture CaraVan takes the museum into local schools.
8. California State University-Chico Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology
Smith Museum of Anthropology is the teaching facility for students enrolled in the Museum Studies program. These studies are available in the form of an undergraduate certificate or a master’s degree with anthropology concentration, with students designing and installing exhibitions themselves. But the public also benefits from the museum with creative kids’ programs like Night at the Museum and Museum-in-a-Box.
7. University of New Mexico Maxwell Museum of Anthropology
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Maxwell Museum at the University of New Mexico is world-renowned for its holdings related to the American southwest. Eleven different outreach programs are designed to bring the museum’s richness to the wider public through informal lectures and hands-on activities. These include Summer Camp, World Music, People of the Southwest (grades 3-5), Mexico at the Hour of Combat (grades 6-12), Travelling Trunk Exhibits, and more. Admission is free.
6. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Penn has one of the premier anthropology/archaeology museums in the world. In visiting the website alone it becomes clear that a lot is going on. Check out activities like Anthropologists in the Making Summer Camp, World Culture Days, 40 Winks with the Sphinx Sleepover, and more. Although the museum is not free, the admission price of $5-15 is well worth it. The museum is particularly known for the amazing 15-ton Egyptian sphinx and collection of mummies.
5. Indiana University Mathers Museum of World Cultures
A special focus on Indiana regional folk art and a dynamic public outreach program characterize this smaller but lively anthropology museum. The public can come witness Indiana artisans at work in basketmaking, decoy carving, blacksmithing, and willow furniture. One artisan is a fourth-generation rug weaver working the same loom as her great-grandmother. Come see the over 40,000 objects at this free museum open six days per week.
4. University of Maine Hudson Museum
With 9,000 objects in their holdings, the Hudson Museum is not large, but is certainly public-friendly. Six days a week, the larger community can benefit from public outreach programs. Grades 3 and up can excavate in Maine’s only indoor archaeological site. For teachers who want their students to experience the museum in their own classroom, consider the mobile classroom with a Maine Indians theme. At the museum, be sure to check out the new World Cultures gallery, the feature exhibit at the Hudson.
3. University of Arizona Arizona State Museum
The Arizona State Museum at U of A was established in 1893, making it the oldest anthropology museum in the Southwest. It is also the largest and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Kids are free, while adults get in for $5. Numerous public outreach activities include a unique series of summer camps for adults and Culture Craft Saturday in the museum’s lobby, where you can weave a bowl or card wool. A must visit for understanding the anthropological history of the Southwest.
2. Brigham Young University Museum of Peoples and Cultures
The Museum of Peoples and Cultures at BYU has a long history going back to 1879. Open five days with free admission, the museum is highly accessible to the public with programs like Mornings at the Museum and Adventure Date Night. Students can volunteer, and professional archaeologists and anthropologists also benefit through papers published by the museum.
1. Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
George Peabody (1795-1859) endowed 22 educational institutions in his lifetime, including Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Harvard’s Peabody was founded in 1866, making it one of the oldest anthropology museums in the world. The Peabody opens its doors to kids through a variety of programs like Amazing Aztecs (grades 4-7), Globetrotters (K-2), and Foragers to Farmers (grades 6-8). General museum highlights include the nation’s largest collection of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark Expedition and over 5,000 ancient Peruvian textiles.
This concludes our ranking of the 15 most public-friendly university anthropology museums.
By CVO Staff