Some of the Coolest Ethnology Items from the Past Century


In celebration of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s 100th anniversary, a curator from each specific discipline–ethnology, archaeology, biology, and paleontology–chose 25 objects. These 100 special objects highlight the Science Museum of Minnesota’s past hundred years–no small feat, considering the Science Museum holds 1.75 million objects.

Tilly Laskey, the Science Museum’s Curator and Collections Manager for Ethnology, notes that the ethnology collections alone contain 15,000 objects, and represent cultures worldwide.

“The really wonderful thing about our collections are that they reflect the population right here in the Twin Cities,†Laskey says. “We have very strong collections in American Indian, Hmong, and African cultures, as well as Mexican folk art.â€

She chose her objects based on connections to the community, research projects, and those she found engaging or unique.


is the study of how humans interact with plants. The Science Museum’s rich store of seeds and agricultural tools came from amateur anthropologist Wesley Hiller, who began collecting in 1938. Hiller’s forethought and careful gathering created an exceptional collection of 167 different varieties of indigenously cultivated species of corn, beans, squash, rice, pumpkin, watermelon, cotton, tobacco and sunflowers, mainly from the Upper Midwest, Plains, and Southwestern regions of the United States.

Curator’s pick:

“The Science Museum has a unique and active ethnobotany program where we germinate, grow, and harvest seeds from the Museum’s permanent collections,†explains Laskey.

She worked with guest curator Paul Red Elk in planting and caring for Science Museum’s research gardens over the past three years, taking a kernel from a cob of Mandan red flour corn dating back to 1920.

“We usually don’t do things like this, but the great thing is, we’re growing virtual clones,†Laskey says. 

During May through October, you can visit the ethnobotany exhibit gardens in the Museum’s Big Back Yard.

“We use public exhibition gardens as a way to educate visitors about American Indian agriculture, while at the same time doing active research in revitalizing seed stock,†she explains.

Seeds range from 100 to 900 years old. The Native American Youth Garden Team, as part of a partnership with the American Indian Magnet School, is involved as a method of teaching urban American Indian youth about traditional tribal agricultural practices, nutrition, and health.

Ceramic artisans living on the Nicoya peninsula of western Costa Rica recreate ancient pottery in the styles of their ancestors, often inspired by the archaeological remains of their past that are all around them.

Potter Carlos Grijalba from the community of San Vicente de Nicoya created the bowl on the left with the same clays and techniques used by his community for centuries. Carlos, and numerous other potters like him, makes pottery specifically for sale. The archaeological bowl on the right, made between 500 and 1500 years ago, probably had a ceremonial function.

To artists like Carlos, making pottery represents a celebration of his heritage and an economic resource. For the tourists who visit western Costa Rica, the pottery represents fine art, a memory of their vacation, and a connection to the San Vicente community.

Laskey collaborated with Ed Fleming, curator of archeology, to show the influences ceramic traditions of the ancient past have on the potters living in San Vicente today. Laskey focuses on ethnology, current or recent people, while Fleming focuses on archeology, or people of the past. The two bowls are meant to be displayed together to highlight ongoing research and collecting projects in the department, to connect the present to the past, and to tell visitors something about the community of San Vicente in Costa Rica.

Curator’s Pick:

“We picked these ceramic bowls not only for their beauty, but because together they demonstrate the deep connections many artists maintain with their cultural heritage,†explains Ed Fleming, curator of archeology.

The bowls also highlight two key aspects of the Anthropology Department: the Cordry Internship and Research Associate programs.  The Cordry Internship is a unique program that enables a Minnesota college student to live in a Mexican or Central American community and collect folk art for the Museum’s permanent collection. Prior to spending their four months immersed in a selected community, the intern works closely with Science Museum curators, conservators, and research associates who train them in museum standards and methods. The intern’s fieldwork consists of collecting folk art objects, photos, and information about the objects and the people who make them.