Connecting through Collections
Director of Anthropological Collections
Museum of Natural and Cultural History
Museums often lead us down unexpected paths. This applies to visitors as well as staff; in my role as a collections director, I certainly come across my share of surprises and intriguing stories. The recent gift of a tapa cloth to our anthropological collections is a case in point.
Tapa is a fabric made of bark softened through soaking and beating and is particularly common in Polynesia. After the museum launched an online gallery featuring tapa cloths from our collections, we began to receive new offers from collectors and their descendants around the country. One such offer came from Kathleen Frary Rose (University of Oregon Class of 1971), who had a fascinating story to tell about the tapa in her possession.
Originally crafted in Samoa, the tapa was given to Rose in 1994 by her mother, Maryann Frary. Frary, in turn, had received it in the 1970s from none other than Luther Cressman—our museum’s founding director, who uncovered the world’s oldest shoes at Oregon’s Fort Rock Cave during the 1930s. Frary (then Maryann Doyle) met Cressman in the 1940s, while she was a graduate student at the University of Oregon. She participated in his Klamath Indian Reservation Archaeological Field School in 1948 and completed her MA in anthropology the following year.
When I learned that Frary had been one of Cressman’s field school students, I began to wonder if she might appear in some of his fieldwork films—reels the museum holds in our collections along with Cressman’s archaeological finds. Using a picture furnished by her daughter, along with a description of her mother as red-headed and wearing glasses, we were able to find her in footage recently digitized with grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation. In fact, knowing when Frary had been at the field school helped us zero in on a precise 1948 date for the film, which we previously thought could be from 1949. It was exciting to be able to connect these dots and share with Rose not only the footage, but also her mother’s fieldnotes and sketches, which showed the young woman to be a meticulous and competent artist. In a 1988 letter, Cressman, then at age 90, referred to her as “one of the most gallant young people it was the good fortune of Cecilia [his second wife] and me to know.”
The story doesn’t end there. As it turns out, the tapa is special for another reason: Cressman originally received it from his first wife, anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead is best known for her work in Samoa, which she began in 1925 while employed by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). According to an essay on her work, Mead brought little back to the mainland from her 1925-26 fieldwork—only two tapas, which are curated at the AMNH. We’re delighted that our museum now has a third.
Every object in our collections has a story to tell—in some cases, many stories. In preserving this tapa, we preserve the stories of Samoan artists a century ago, of our local community and our UO “flock,” and of the history of anthropology. At the same time, we strengthen ties to sister institutions like the AMNH. While the museum houses vast and diverse collections, each object we hold in trust has a story—and in that story, the potential for making new connections.
Header image: Tara Puyat, now of Lane County Historical Museum, during her internship at the MNCH
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