Art for History’s Sake: Barbara Hail ’52

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
For Barbara Hail, the Kiowa baby cradles, the Cashinahua tribal masks, and the hand-carved 17th-century bowls on display at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Bristol, Rhode Island, are more than just beautiful objects. Each tells a tale about its maker and owner while simultaneously relating the history of a culture and a people. “It’s not wall art,” Hail says. “[They’re] things that were made beautiful because [their makers] wanted to use them.”

Tracking down how beautiful things were used has been a big part of Hail’s career. While organizing an exhibit on Kiowa and Comanche lattice baby cradles in the mid-1990s, for example, she traced the cradles back to the families that had made and used them. When it came time to write a book on the exhibit, Hail enlisted the families to write personal narratives about the women who crafted the cradles or the infants carried in them. “Most of these cradles have been sitting anonymous in museums,” Hail told the BAM in 1999. “Our purpose has been to take them back to the women in these communities and ask them who made them and what they were made for.”

Hail, who retired in October as the Haffenreffer’s deputy director and curator, joined the museum’s full-time staff in 1967 as an educator. One of her first efforts was the creation of the museum’s experiential-education program, an attempt to break down the barrier that normally separates children from cultural artifacts. Today the program serves more than 7,000 New England students a year.

Hail says she became interested in Native American art in the early 1960s, when she spent time in Wyoming with her first husband’s family. There she quickly realized that despite a master’s degree in American history and work toward a doctorate in the field, she knew very little about Native American history. She would have to learn it by asking Native Americans themselves. (As an undergraduate, she transferred from Brown to Cornell, where she finished her degree.)

Three decades later, Hail is acknowledged as an expert on Native American material culture. Her first book, Hau, Kola!, published in 1980, documented the Haffenreffer’s collection of Plains Indian art. It has since become a widely used reference for museums that want to organize collections of Native American art but that lack a curator with expertise in the field.

Although Hail is officially retired, she remains on the Haffenreffer staff as a research associate and she says there’s one more museum collection—an assortment of 19th-century Iroquois beadwork—that she’d like to organize. She says she’s also getting calls for consulting help from other museums. “People don’t retire from this kind of business,” Hail says. “It’s just there. It’s with you all your life.”

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