By MARY WOLFSKILL and PATRICIA FRANCIS
The Library of Congress is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) with an exhibition that will feature materials from her vast collection, including manuscripts, diaries, letters, field notes, drawings, photographs, sound recordings and film.
The collection came to the Library as a bequest, the result of a meeting in 1965 between Margaret Mead and John C. Broderick, who was, at that time, a specialist in American cultural history in the Manuscript Division.
Reporting on his visit with Mead, Broderick noted that "there is a great deal of correspondence. Since anthropologists are in the field so much, there is no opportunity to do business by telephone. They are the single professional group, she [Mead] feels, who continue to write letters."
The Mead Collection is housed primarily in the Manuscript Division as well as the Prints and Photographs, and Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound divisions. The Mead collection totals more than 500,000 items and is one of the largest for a single individual in the Library of Congress. It touches on every aspect of her life and documents her childhood, career and lifelong interests.
This exhibition is designed to convey the scope of Margaret Mead's interests and accomplishments, the substance of her work, as well as the range of responses to her work. The exhibition shows how Margaret Mead, born into a family of educators and home-schooled for much of her childhood, learned early to be a keen observer of the world around her. Her skills were honed through formal education, including studies with prominent social scientists at Barnard College and Columbia University in the 1920s. The largest segment of the exhibition focuses on Mead's field work in Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Bali, from which she drew many of her ideas. By bringing these cultures and her ideas to a mass audience, she helped to popularize the notion that there are many different ways of organizing human experience.
The discipline of anthropology involves the study of human culture, the socially shared learned system of beliefs, values, customs, language and material goods necessary for people to function as members of a particular social group. Anthropological issues and methodologies, such as the nature-nurture debate, will be explored in the exhibition by considering the problems and concerns that attracted Mead's research interest. The exhibition also addresses the reception of her work by the public of the day and by popular and scholarly critics both then and now. Finally, it reviews the ways in which she promoted anthropology and applied her research to timely topics, such as childhood education, intergenerational communication, gender differences, technological change and ecological issues.
The exhibition consists of three major sections. The first of these, "Shaping Forces," explores major cultural factors that influenced Margaret Mead during her formative years. One of the best-documented lives in the Manuscript Division is that of Mead. The collection dates to the mid-19th century with papers of Mead's grandparents, who were schoolteachers in the Midwest. Her parents' letters and writings are also among the papers. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor at the Wharton School of Finance of the University of Pennsylvania, while her mother, Emily Fogg Mead, pursued graduate work in sociology at the University of Chicago, where the two met. They were products of the Progressive era in America, when academics and social reformers were optimistic that social problems could be solved by the application of the social sciences.
Margaret Mead's early home life, with emphases on education and social issues, exerted a pronounced influence on her later life and career. In later years, she received criticism for encouraging traditional cultures to adopt Western ways in the name of progress. As an anthropologist, Margaret Mead sought to apply the principles of anthropology and the social sciences to addressing social problems and issues, such as world hunger, childhood education and mental health. She was continually observing and gathering information in all kinds of settings.
Margaret Mead's early training in the skills of observation and information-gathering came from her grandmother and her mother, who filled notebooks with observations about Margaret, the first born. Margaret was treatedas a unique individual within her family rather than as just a child, and this inspired confidence and curiosity. She learned, from being observed, that to be observed was, as she recalled late in her life, "an act of love." Among the items on display is one of the notebooks in which Emily Fogg Mead describes characteristics of Margaret at the age of 6. Emily Mead noted that her daughter was "affectionate," "helpful," "continually asking questions," "always busy at something," "very bright and original" and showed "great determination and perseverance when [she] wants anything." Mead was mostly home-schooled through the fourth grade with her paternal grandmother, who lived with the family, as her primary teacher. One of Mead's childhood diaries, written in 1911 at the age of 9 during a summer on Nantucket Island, Mass., will be on display, as well as a self-portrait drawn at the age of 13.
Choosing a Career
After a largely disappointing year at DePauw University in Indiana, Mead transferred to the all-women's Barnard College in New York City in 1920. New York was a vibrant city at the center of the excitement of the Roaring '20s, with a lot to offer an ambitious young woman. Women's colleges such as Barnard flourished in this period. By the mid-1920s, seven women's colleges—Barnard, Vassar, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr—had formed the cooperative Seven Colleges Conference, better known as the Seven Sisters, to advance women's education.
Mead began as an English major but eventually decided on the social sciences instead, studying psychology. After taking classes in anthropology with Franz Boas (1858-1942), often considered the "father of modern American anthropology," and his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), she decided to become an anthropologist. Mead was impressed by Boas's brilliance and taken by the urgency of the task Boas and Benedict set out for her—to document cultures before they disappeared in the face of contact with the modern world. Benedict, who began as Mead's mentor, would become a longtime colleague, intimate friend and confidante.
Documenting Mead's interest in pursuing a career in anthropology is a 1923 letter to her grandmother in which Mead writes: "… Anthropology is at present my chief enthusiasm. Mrs. Benedict belongs to a press committee which tries to popularize Anthropology and make at least a few of its ideas common coin."
Mead goes on to mention Benedict's recent writing about "Cups of Clay," based on her field work with native Americans in Southern California, and repeating something told to her by one of her informants: "In the beginning there was given to every people a cup of clay. And from this cup they drank their life. Our cup is broken."
Mead asked if this was "not a quaint and poetic way of characterizing the whole culture of the Indians or any other people for that matter?" She went on to write that anthropology was an important career, because "modern civilization is killing off primitive cultures so fast; in a hundred years there will be no primitive people. The work is so urgent and there are so few people who even understand the importance of the work, let alone being willing to do it."
One of the last items in this section of the exhibition is a copy of Mead's doctoral dissertation, An Inquiry into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia. Considered a library dissertation, it was completed before she embarked on her first field trip to Samoa.
To the Field and Back
The second section, "To the Field and Back," focuses on Margaret Mead's pre-World War II anthropological field work in the South Pacific. Mead's professor Franz Boas sent generations of his students to the field to document preliterate and small-scale cultures whose traditional way of life was changing due to contact with the modern world. Boas wanted Mead, with her background in psychology, to study Native American adolescents. She wanted to go to Polynesia, the culture area she had researched for her doctoral dissertation. They compromised, and she went to American Samoa.
Between 1925, when she set out for Samoa, and 1939, Mead studied seven cultures in the South Pacific and Indonesia. She focused in all of these studies on the relation between the individual and culture, particularly in the transmission of culture to children. Mead sought to understand how people with particular innate temperaments function in cultures that emphasize different aspects of the human potential. Among her pioneering researches were those that looked at different cultural expectations for male and female, an early attempt at understanding what are now called "gender roles." Mead was one of the earliest American anthropologists to apply techniques and theories from modern psychology to understanding culture and to apply these ideas to women and children.
The Adolescent Girl
When Margaret Mead journeyed to the South Pacific territory of American Samoa in 1925, she sought to discover whether adolescence was a universally traumatic and stressful time due to biological factors, or whether the experience of adolescence depended on one's cultural upbringing. After spending about nine months working in Samoa and administering psychological tests, Mead concluded that adolescence was not a stressful time for girls in Samoa, because Samoan cultural patterns were very different from those in the United States. Her findings were published in Coming of Age in Samoa (1925), a vivid, descriptive account of Samoan adolescent life that became tremendously popular. It was published in more than a dozen editions in a variety of languages and made Mead famous. One of the reasons for the popularity of the book was that Mead had revised the introduction and conclusion of her original manuscript, adding two chapters that dealt directly with the implications of her findings for child rearing in the United States.
Though it was a popular success and has been used in numerous undergraduate anthropology classes, Coming of Age in Samoa has received varying degrees of criticism over the years. Some of her results have been called into question by other anthropologists. Among other things, she has been criticized for overly romanticizing Samoan life and downplaying evidence contrary to her main argument. In addition, some Samoans have found her depiction of Samoan adolescent sexuality offensive. Underlying some of the criticism is the nature-nurture debate in which scientists argued—and continue to argue—over the extent to which a human being is the product of nature or of cultural forces.
Manus: Childhood Thought
On the boat returning from Samoa, Mead met her second husband, Reo Fortune, a New Zealander headed to Cambridge, England, to study psychology. They were married in 1928, after Mead divorced her first husband, Luther Cressman. Fortune and Mead traveled together to Pere, a small village on the island of Manus, in what was then the Admiralty Islands and is now part of Papua New Guinea. Mead, who wanted to study the thought processes of children in preliterate cultures, asked the children of Pere to prepare drawings for her. On the trip she collected 35,000 pieces of children's artwork. Contrary to prevailing thought, she discovered that what is considered childlike in thought varies according to the emphases of the culture. In a culture such as Manus's, where the supernatural permeates everyday life, Mead found that children show no particular interest in the supernatural in their drawings. They focus instead on realistic depictions of the world around them. She published her findings in Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), a book for a general audience. But, as with her Samoan research, she also published a technical monograph on Manus for her peers, titled Kinship in the Admiralty Islands (1934).
Sex and Temperament
After a field trip to Nebraska in 1930 to study the Omaha, she and her husband, Reo Fortune, next headed to the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea for two years. While there, Mead did pioneering work on gender consciousness. She sought to discover to what extent temperamental differences between the sexes were culturally determined rather than innate. She described her findings in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and explored the subject more deeply in the next decade with Male and Female (1949).
Mead found a different pattern of male and female behavior in each of the cultures she studied, all different from sex role expectations in the United States at that time. She found among the Arapesh a temperament for both males and females that was gentle, responsive and cooperative. Among the Mundugumor (now Biwat), both males and females were violent and aggressive, seeking power and position. For the Tchambuli (now Chambri), male and female temperaments were distinct from each other, the woman being dominant, impersonal and managerial and the male less responsible and more emotionally dependent. While Mead's contribution in separating biologically based sex from socially constructed gender was groundbreaking, she was criticized for the neatness of the categories she described. For Mead each culture represented a different type within her theory, and she downplayed or disregarded information that may have made simple classifications more difficult.
In the later stages of the Sepik trip, Mead and Fortune encountered British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was studying the Iatmul people. The three worked to develop a systematic explanation of the relationships between cultures and personality types. Mead discovered such an intellectual bond and temperamental affinity with Bateson that she eventually divorced Fortune and married Bateson.
Bali: Personality Formation
Mead and Bateson were married in 1936 in Singapore as they headed to do field work in Bali in the Netherlands East Indies (today Indonesia). In this pioneering work in visual anthropology, they used a variety of methods to explore the role of culture in personality formation.
They documented Balinese culture in extensive field notes and through the innovative use of still photographs and motion picture film. Collaborating with other Westerners living in Bali and with Balinese secretary-informants, Mead and Bateson produced multiple layers of documentation of such behaviors as parent-child interactions, ritual performances and ceremonies, and artists at work. In addition to other objects, they collected Balinese art from adults and children and acquired more than 1,200 pieces. Among the works they produced from their research in Bali are the film "Trance and Dance in Bali" (1952) and the book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942). The latter contains a selection of 759 still photographs, arranged thematically to illustrate theoretical points about the culture and Balinese character formation. They used photographs to show, for instance, how children learned physical skills passively by having their bodies moved into the necessary positions by their teachers.
While this field work is still considered groundbreaking, it has been criticized, particularly for not accounting sufficiently for the role of religion in Balinese culture.
Iatmul: Personality Formation II
Before returning to the United States, Mead and Bateson traveled to New Guinea to test in a different culture the field work technique they had developed in Bali. They spent approximately six months observing, photographing and filming the Iatmul of the Middle Sepik for their comparative study of the connections between child-rearing practices and adult personality. They selected the Iatmul because Bateson had previously studied them and Mead was familiar with the cultures of the region. Due to the onset of World War II, very little was ever published from these 1938 Iatmul materials.
Items on display in this section of the exhibition include recent additions to the Mead Collection, including previously unavailable correspondence while Mead was in Samoa between her and her close friend and mentor Ruth Benedict; the letter Mead's supervising professor Franz Boas sent her shortly before her departure for Samoa, telling her which research questions she should keep in mind while in the field; and a photograph of Mead's room at the naval dispensary on the island of T'au in American Samoa. Her decision to live there instead of in a Samoan household has been a point of criticism of her Samoan work.
Visitors will also see in this section a 1968 letter Margaret Mead sent to Derek Freeman, one of the most persistent critics of her Samoan work, responding to some of his questions and criticisms; children's drawings from New Guinea and Bali; and a field notebook from Bali in which she recorded information on the medical care she provided to people there. It also includes a letter she sent to her future husband Reo Fortune in the 1920s, raising the question that was to underlie the work she did for the rest of her career: "When does an Indian become an Indian?"
An audio-video kiosk in the exhibition will feature still and moving-picture film from work that Mead conducted in Bali and New Guinea with her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and that she used to analyze various aspects of child development and acculturation. An early student of body language and gesture, Mead was interested in such things as the way children were held and carried in different cultures.
"Learning to Live in One World"
Margaret Mead's role as a public media figure and her contribution to issues of global significance are considered in the final section, "Learning to Live in One World." Among the objects for this section is a page remaining from a book manuscript Mead destroyed after the explosion of the atomic bomb. She saw the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan by the United States in 1945 as a defining moment in human history, symbolizing man's ability to destroy himself. This peril and the resulting global interdependence were major themes in her writings for the rest of her life. Also in this section are playing cards from a board game designed by Margaret Mead and Mr. Bateson; Balinese and American children's drawings depicting Sputnik; a notebook in which Mead wrote during the last weeks of her life; and a second audio-video kiosk with video footage featuring Mead on television talk shows and in other taped public appearances.
The World War II period marked a shift in Mead's work. Increasingly she paid more attention to contemporary, so-called "complex," cultures, including that of the United States, and less time to field work among distant cultures. She began commenting on issues of concern to American society directly. One of Mead's major interests in the war and postwar period was the issue of global interdependence, and she became increasingly involved in international organizations working with global human issues. In addition to her continued writing of popular books and magazine articles, she traveled frequently within the United States and overseas. She lectured to various groups, did radio interviews and, from the early years of the new medium, appeared on television. Mead continued in these years to take notes incessantly, filling nearly 200 volumes of notebooks on her everyday activities.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mead was easily identified by a tall, forked walking stick, which she began using after recovering from a break in a chronically weak ankle in 1960, and a trademark cape. In addition to being widely recognized, Mead became an increasingly controversial figure in this period and was criticized by some for offering her views on many different contemporary topics.
When Mead died in 1978, she was widely eulogized. Sen. Jacob K. Javits (D-N.Y.) recalled her lasting contribution in a eulogy in the Congressional Record: "Margaret Mead lives on. She is with us in the brilliant studies she conducted on human behavior; she lives on in the many books she has authored…her ideas thrive in the minds of her students whom she stimulated with her zeal and zest for the search for knowledge and truth. …"
The shift in Mead's work brought on by the onset of World War II began in 1939, when she and Bateson returned to the United States:, she was pregnant, and their daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, was born that December. In this period, the couple prepared their Balinese materials for publication and turned their attention to using their professional skills to assist the Allied war effort in the United States. They contributed their expertise as social scientists to groups that applied the behavioral sciences to such things as problems of morale in wartime. Early in 1942, Mead went to Washington, D.C., to head the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits, which applied anthropological methods to problems of food distribution and preparation in war-affected countries. Also as part of the war effort, in 1942 Mead published And Keep Your Powder Dry, a book on American national character.
During World War II, anthropologists used the techniques they had developed in small-scale societies to analyze the "national character" of so-called complex societies. Authors of these studies sought to understand the cultural patterns of nation-states such as Great Britain, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, largely through indirect methods rather than by traveling to those countries. By gathering information from immigrants to the United States, as well as from published sources and films, they studied culture "at a distance." Such research was used to guide government and military policy, to further cooperation among wartime allies and to plan for a postwar world. Similar studies continued after the war with the Research in Contemporary Cultures project, which was led by Mead after Ruth Benedict's death in 1948.
National character studies in the war and postwar period were subsequently criticized by scholars for such things as their homogeneity and overgeneralization. These studies, some funded directly by government agencies, marked a new stage in the continuing relationship between social scientists and the U.S. government, a relationship that would become increasingly controversial in the 1960s.
Technology and Social Change
Mead was profoundly affected by the bombing of Hiroshima and the dawning of the nuclear age in 1945. At the time, she was working on a book called Learning to Live in One World, which dealt with planning for life in a postwar world. She claimed to have destroyed the almost-completed book manuscript because the advent of nuclear weapons rendered the contents out of date. The book was never published, but a page from it is on display in the exhibition.
Applying her anthropological skills, Mead gathered information on people's reactions to the atomic bomb. She incorporated their views into her work as she sought a model for living in a radically changed world, a world in which human beings could destroy themselves. In addition to concern over humanitarian issues and growing involvement in international organizations, in this period she became increasingly interested in the public perception of science and in space exploration. Haunted by the specter of nuclear war, Mead focused in the remaining years of her life on finding new ways to live and thrive in a world transformed by new forms of technology. Mead had been interested in cultural stability and change since her student days, and the rapid pace of social change and its impact on relations between the generations was a major theme in Mead's postwar writings.
Mead as a Cultural Commentator
Beginning with Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead applied the knowledge she gained from her field expeditions to a better understanding of American life. She observed and commented on American society—often insightfully, sometimes controversially—and explained cultural patterns that affected the ways people behaved and communicated. By the early 1960s, Mead had become widely regarded as a vocal commentator on contemporary American life. In her remaining years, she spoke and wrote to popular audiences on a wide range of subjects, including the generation gap, aging, the nuclear family, education, the environment, race, poverty, women's rights and sexual behavior. Over time, she devoted increasing amounts of time to traveling around the United States and other countries to lecture and appear on radio and television programs. She sought audience questions at her public appearances and used them as part of her research on American culture, writing and lecturing, as she once said, "into a state of mind."
Mead addressed the public from a variety of platforms. The most enduring of these was the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she had been hired in 1926 to make anthropology accessible to the public. She also taught at a number of institutions of higher learning, and wrote and lectured for many specialized and professional audiences. With her concern for building a better future, Mead became increasingly interested in the 1960s and 1970s in ecological issues and in the field of ekistics, the study of human settlements. She testified before numerous congressional committees and worked for the United Nations through various nongovernmental organizations.
Mead died of cancer on Nov. 15, 1978, working until her final days. One of her last concerns was congressional passage of child nutrition legislation.
Afterward: Derek Freeman and Margaret Mead
In 1983, five years after Margaret Mead's death, Harvard University Press published a book by Derek Freeman (1916-2001), a professor at the Australian National University, that challenged the accuracy of Mead's findings in Coming of Age in Samoa. The book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, received widespread media attention in the United States. It became a prominent case study in the continuing battle over the relative importance of "nature vs. nurture."
Freeman, who had corresponded with Mead during her lifetime and questioned her on some of her methods and results in Samoa, argued that Mead had made errors in her Samoan work. He wrote that she misunderstood the culture in her effort to bring her professor Franz Boas the answers he wanted to prove his theory of cultural determinism. Among other things, Freeman argued that Mead ignored the violent aspects of Samoan life, did not have a sufficient background in—or give enough emphasis to—biology, did not spend enough time in Samoa and did not know the Samoan language well. Freeman's charges did not go unchallenged. Other researchers have argued that he overemphasized the violent and competitive aspects of Samoan life, quoted Mead selectively and studied a different part of Samoa at a later time.
Freeman subsequently published other books and articles on Mead's Samoan researches, most notably The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead (1999). In that book Freeman argued that Mead had been lied to by two of her informants in Samoa and thus came to erroneous conclusions about the culture and sexual freedom of the girls there. Freeman's claims were again challenged by other researchers. He died on July 6, 2001, and scholars continue to debate the issues raised by this controversy.
In spite of the Mead-Freeman controversy, Mead's work continues to be studied and republished. Mead made a conscious effort to preserve her papers, photographs and motion picture film for future generations. These documents provide researchers with an the opportunity to make in-depth analyses of Mead and her work and to derive their own conclusions about her research.
Ms. Wolfskill and Ms. Francis are curators of this exhibition. Ms. Wolfskill is head of the Manuscript Division Reading Room. Ms. Francis is a Margaret Mead scholar.