Council for Museum Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In the years following Puerto Rico’s transfer to the United States at the conclusion of the 1898 Spanish-American War, the newly acquired Caribbean territory became an early site of great research interest for collectors and emerging U.S. museum institutions.
Archaeologist Samuel Kirkland Lothrop (1892-1965) working in association with Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology between 1915-1917 is one such case-study. Lothrop was the son of a prominent sugar plantation owner which provided him with a unique level of access to coastal midden deposits that were often only recognized after plowing as well as to local workers who likely served as labor in field excavations. Together with his life-long experience traveling the island, these affordances index not only Lothrop’s privileged social positioning but also a broader historical chapter of U.S. mainland-Puerto Rico relations during which American businesses overran the local economy - transforming it into a dependent monoculture society.
Tacking between the resulting archaeological collection and related archival material, this paper reconstructs the layered island network of farmers, plantation workers, collectors and intellectuals that not only made Lothrop’s acquisition of a Puerto Rican collection possible but also significantly framed his academic understandings of how such objects were representative of the island’s pre-contact period. In this way, the paper endeavors to expand the typically narrow category of museum agents - beyond that of named collectors - to include and more importantly, to foreground the understudied, yet critical contributions of local actors to institutional collecting of and narrative traditions about the Caribbean.