Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum to Bring Indigenous Culture Closer to a Diverse Providence


Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology has long been split across two locations: Providence, where it maintains an exhibition and event space on the Brown campus; and Bristol, R.I., where most of its collections and staff are housed. For scholars and community members looking to access the museum’s nearly one million ethnographic objects, archaeological specimens and images representing human cultures and societies across the globe, those seventeen miles can present less than ideal access.

When the museum in Bristol no longer met fire and safety codes, it was closed in 2008. In the last four years, a grant from the Mellon Foundation has funded the preparations of sorting and cataloguing museum holdings in preparation to relocate. After the Fall 2025, the museum will move its collections and staff from Bristol to two newly renovated floors of One Davol Square in Providence’s Jewelry District. The museum will continue to exhibit on the Brown campus, but once funds are available, it will eventually move exhibition space, as well, to the first floor of Davol Square.

Both sites, Bristol and Davol Square, have deep roots in Rhode Island history. The Bristol site was donated to Brown in 1903 by Rudolf F. Haffenreffer Jr., brewer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, who had purchased a seaside amusement park there for use as a summer home and farm. Haffenreffer was deeply interested in Native American archaeology and history, and over the course of several decades, he bought extensive collections of Indigenous artifacts from New England and the American Southwest. In 1928, he opened a museum on the property, where members of the public could view his collections, and hired LeRoy Perry, a Pocasset Wampanoag sachem, to serve as an interpreter. After Haffenreffer died in 1954, his heirs donated the museum to Brown, paving the way for anthropology studies at Brown and expanding academic research on Native American history and culture.

Haffenreffer’s land includes the rock formation, King Philip’s Throne or King Philip’s Chair, marking a space identified with Metacom, a leader of tribes called King Philip by the English. The area was linked to both the Wampanoag and Pokanoket Tribes in the 1600s. On this land, the English and Native American tribes fought the bloody King Philip’s War, 1675-1676. King Philip was killed less than a mile from the rock formation in 1676. Once the museum has moved, Brown promises to return 60% of approximately 375 acres to local Native American tribes. The Pokanoket Tribe has been most active negotiating with Brown, even staging an occupation protest in 2017 to claim exclusive ownership. But Brown has specified that other tribes with interest in the land must be part of any agreement, including Wampanoags and Narragansetts. No agreement has been reached. According to Brown, the university “is committed to further discussions with the hope of reaching an agreement of a stewardship approach that is inclusive of the Native peoples that have a historical connection to the Bristol property.” Among other things, any agreement between Brown and Native tribes should provide for “conservation and preservation of, and sustainable access to, the historically significant and sacred sites on the property.”

The museum also maintains an exhibition and event space on the Brown campus, 17 miles away from Bristol. Photo: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

By moving from Bristol to Providence, the museum traverses two hundred years of Rhode Island history, from colonization to industrialization. Brown has owned the building at One Davol Square since 2007, originally the Davol Rubber Company, constructed in the late-nineteenth century when Providence was enjoying an apex of manufacturing in the thriving Jewelry District. Just as the jewelry making collapsed in the late 1970s, One Davol Square was completely renovated and opened as an upscale retail mall. By the 1980s, however, it was converted to office space. One Davol Square is one of many properties Brown has renovated or constructed for its medical school, for administration, and now for a museum that will provide an important link between the university and the cultural life of the city. In the same time period, Interstate 195 has been relocated, opening up working and walkable spaces between the East Side and the Jewelry District, which had been cut off by the highway. Creative plans for the abandoned or neglected structures of the district surfaced decades ago. The mall at One Davol Square did not survive, just as the plans to create Heritage Harbor Museum featuring Rhode Island history in South Street Landing, the old Narragansett Electric Company Power Station, died hard. One Davol Square will now house the Haffenreffer; South Street Landing already houses offices and services for Brown, RIC and URI students.

Moving the museum and reassessing its holdings has allowed it to consider its role in light of current standards of practice. Museum director, Robert Preucel, according to the Providence Journal, noted that Haffenreffer has “repatriated the remains of two humans, more than 200 funerary objects, and three ‘objects of cultural patrimony.’ ” Christine Hodge, Assistant Director of the museum, says the move is “a chance to evaluate everything we have and assess whether it is serving our mission today.”

Providence offers the museum the ability to reclaim its educational role. For decades, school children made the trip to Bristol to view firsthand the heritage of Indigenous people in Rhode Island. The collection, on the other hand, extens far beyond Rhode Island history. Over time, the collection grew to include objects and art spanning several millennia and six continents. Among the items in the collection today are paleolithic hand axes recovered in France; Kiowa and Cheyenne cradleboards; Huni Kuin featherwork from Peru; and 1980s Chilean protest art created in response to Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

The museum is also home to the Laboratory for Circumpolar Studies, which holds 850,000 objects documenting the cultural history of the Iñupiat, a group of Native Alaskans.

Most of the Haffenreffer Museum’s staff and collections have been housed in Bristol, R.I., since the 1950s. Photo: John Abromowski/Brown University

“Moving to Providence won’t just put us in a multicultural center and a transit hub where we are more visible and more accessible to folks,” Hodge said. Logistics matter. “It will also make our everyday museum work easier. We’re getting to reorganize objects and staff in a way that takes better care of the collections, organizes things in more rational ways and allows staff to serve the community more effectively.”

With help from a grant from the Mellon Foundation, museum staff have spent the last four years cataloging and reorganizing the collections in preparation for the move from Bristol to Providence. Photo: Christina Hodge/Haffenreffer Museum

Logistics matter to teachers, professors and researchers. And to the community as well. As Hodge concludes, “We have collections of items from communities across the world, and a lot of it is very relevant to the many diaspora communities here in Providence,” including those with Caribbean, African and Asian ancestry. “We’re not just enthusiastic about sharing the collections with them — we’re also eager to hear stories that will widen our understanding of the cultural significance of these items.” Moving the collection to new and accessible spaces will make the exchanges possible.

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who has lived in Providence 57 years.

This article is based on a story written by Jill Kimball for Brown University.