Jane Pickering has a lot of ideas for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, including a focus on ethical practices in a more culturally conscious world.
“One of the things that we’re really going to be thinking about over the next few years,” she says, “is what does ethical stewardship of those collections mean today.”
On July 1, Pickering officially took the reins as the museum’s new director, and she comes to her chair with an impressive resume — over 30 years of museum experience including her most recent post as the Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.
Inclusion and access are two other major issues in the Boston museum landscape that Pickering hopes to highlight. The Peabody has been using its public programming to achieve this audience inclusion for many years, including its very popular Dia de los Muertos event and a Summer Solstice festival it hosts annually.
“I’m a working mother so I know how complicated life gets. I think it’s really important that if people are going to spend their precious leisure time with us that they feel welcome,” she says.
The truth is, these programs work, Pickering has seen it with her own eyes. She recounts a moment during a K-12 program that broadcasts a museum talk via Skype into classrooms around the country. One of the students asked a particularly tough question about the Mesoamerican hieroglyphs on the object in question.
“Suddenly one of the researchers walked out of the lab and the educator was able to grab him and say, ‘Ah, well, here we have the world expert in Mayan hieroglyphs,’” says Pickering. “And then this guy who was just going to get his cup of coffee was in this in-depth conversation with a middle school student who was really fascinated.”
That’s the kind of impact Pickering hopes to continue to make.
If you only have a few minutes to check out the Peabody, Pickering recommends heading straight to the fourth floor for the “All the World is Here” gallery, which features 800 diverse objects from around the globe. One of Pickering’s many personal favorites: the Feejee Mermaid.
This fall, the museum will open “Resetting the Table,” an exploration of food history from ancient Mayan practices to the Food Network.
“There’s a whole section on chocolate that I’m excited about,” says Pickering. “I’m a bit of a chocoholic. People in Mesoamerica have been drinking chocolate for thousands of years.”
Turns out Pickering knows exactly the way to make history relevant to us, and it’s much like the mom she is — by enticing us with mythical creatures and our favorite cheat-day snack.