The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology

This exhibition was developed in collaboration with the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, Canada, by Associate Professor Aaron Glass and students and staff at Bard Graduate Center.

In 1897, anthropologist Franz Boas published The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. One of the first holistic portraits of a Native North American society, the book is the result of Boas’s fieldwork among the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia and a deep collaboration with his Indigenous research partner, George Hunt. It features ceremonial objects from multiple museums; narratives and songs recorded in the Kwak̓wala language; eyewitness accounts of ritual; and photographs of people, villages, and artworks. Drawing on a Kwakwaka’wakw metaphor, Boas imagined his book as a storage box for “laws and stories,” preserving them for science in case the culture vanished under colonial impact.

In fact, the book fails to address three important aspects of its making: Canada’s assimilation policy, which outlawed potlatch ceremonies; the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where Boas and Hunt conducted much of their fieldwork; and Hunt’s proper status as a full co-author. In the early 1920s, Hunt took it upon himself to correct and expand the book, in part by reconnecting hereditary treasures to the families they belong to. Hundreds of pages of unpublished revisions were consigned to archives after Boas’s death.

This exhibition website explores the hidden histories and multiple legacies of the groundbreaking volume, which had considerable influence on anthropology, museums, and the modern concept of “culture.” It is part of an international project to create a new Critical Edition, in both print and digital media, that reassembles widely distributed materials. After a century of resilience, the Kwakwaka’wakw are reactivating these texts, museum collections, and archival records as tools for strengthening cultural identity.