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First Decades: 1922–1944

Carl E. Guthe

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, to direct this expedition. Guthe agreed, with the understanding that the University would create a separate Museum and Department of Anthropology. The Museum of Anthropology was formally established in 1922 and the Department of Anthropology six years 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 divisions (the Orient, Ethnology/Ethnobotany, and Human Biology) and 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.

Melvin Gilmore

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, published a small book describing the Ethnobotanical Laboratory, thus establishing the Museum’s publications program. In ensuing decades, the program expanded, producing data-rich monographs featuring excellent scholarship, meticulous research, and leading-edge, vibrant interpretation, many of which became classics. This program continues today: by 2022, the Museum had published more than 200 titles on archaeology, anthropology, and related topics, all of which are available in print and as e-books (browse the catalog here).