Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

A Look Back at Dartmouth’s Most Prized Treasures

One student investigates the history of the “Dartmouth’s Treasures” exhibit and the College’s current collection of art.

8-17-23-hannahli-dartmouthtreasures.jpg

This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue. 

The College began collecting artifacts shortly after its founding by Reverend Eleazar Wheelock in 1769. At the College’s second commencement in 1772, a benefactor donated money for the purchase of one of Dartmouth’s first treasures — a “cosmoscope,” or “a mechanical device that illustrated the movements of the solar system,” according to Jacquelynn Baas and Charles Willard Moore’s book “Treasures of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.” That year, Reverend David McClure wrote to President Wheelock about elephant bones he had found about “600 miles down the Ohio” River, which he would later donate to the College, Baas and Moore wrote. Since its humble beginnings, Dartmouth’s collections have grown to include more than 65,000 objects from places all around the world. 

The Butterfield Museum of Paleontology, Archaeology, Ethnology and Kindred Sciences — which originally housed the College’s collection of objects — was torn down in 1928 to make room for the construction of Baker Library, according to Baas and Moore. Without a physical location to store the collections, various academic departments used relevant pieces in teaching, while remaining items were transferred to Wilson Hall. At this time, art and artifacts lived separately; the College did not have one singular building to house its growing art collection until 1929 when Carpenter Hall was completed. In 1976, Dartmouth began to source funding for a centralized museum that could house all of the College’s collections under one roof. In 1978, Harvey P. Hood ’18 made this vision for a college museum possible through his donation to the College; construction began soon afterward. 

Over 200 years after the College first began to collect artifacts, the Hood Museum of Art officially opened in 1985. At the museum’s dedication, a special exhibition of “Dartmouth’s Treasures” was put on view in the museum’s Harrington Gallery. The exhibit promised a “selection of works of the highest quality.” Choosing which treasures to exhibit out of the many objects Dartmouth had amassed over the years proved to be a difficult task for the curators. 

We do not know for certain which of the then roughly 40,000 items in Dartmouth’s collections were included in the 1985 “Dartmouth Treasures” exhibit. Little written material about the exhibit has survived to this day, according to Michael Hartman, Associate Curator of American Art at the Hood Museum. However, research at the Rauner Special Collections Library and the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine’s Archives revealed an infamous item that held a special place of honor in the exhibit. The Wentworth Bowl, a silver monteith that Eleazar Wheelock received in 1773 from John Wentworth — royal governor of New Hampshire and Dartmouth trustee — was the first object of art the College received. The monteith, a large bowl with a detachable crown rim, was used to chill wine glasses and operated as a conventional punch bowl in the 18th century. Over the years, the Wentworth Bowl has become symbolic of the College’s highest office — the presidency — and it is still used at inauguration ceremonies today. In fact, the bowl, currently packed in a box in Rauner Special Collections Library, will be brought out at College President Sian Leah Beilock’s inauguration on Sept. 22, according to Jay Satterfield, Head of Special Collections at Rauner.

The bowl was considered “Dartmouth’s Legacy in Silver” by Barbara Macadam, curator at the Hood when the “Dartmouth’s Treasures” exhibit opened, and was included in the original “Dartmouth Treasures” exhibit. 

However, the College has changed dramatically since the initial “Dartmouth’s Treasures” exhibit. Now, within the College’s collection, there are many other worthy artifacts which capture Dartmouth’s history and values. I explored which treasured artifacts may go in a “Dartmouth Treasures” exhibit if one were to exist today. 

When considering significant pieces of art in the College’s collection, first chronologically is the Wentworth Bowl. Not only has the bowl grown to symbolize the presidency, but it also serves as a reminder of the College’s problematic beginnings. The inscription on the bowl suggests it was given to Wheelock and “those Friends who accompanied him” to the first commencement ceremony in 1771. Wentworth’s commissioning of such an elaborate piece, celebrating a college founded to educate Native Americans in Christian theology and the English way of life, proves his approval of Wheelock’s educational experiment. The Wentworth Bowl acknowledges the college’s legacy while recognizing its past shortcomings. 

At the Hood, there is a heavy focus on art created by people of many identities and from places around the world, from Aboriginal Australian art to traditional European art. Art created by Native Americans holds particular significance in thinking about how far we have come as a College. From an institution founded on the premise to assimilate and strip Natives of their culture, to an institution that celebrates Native culture at ceremonies such as the Powwow and puts Native art on display, we have come a long way — though we are far from perfect, and the College still remains a work in progress.

As a result, one particularly culturally significant work in the College’s collection is a painting by Kent Monkman called “The Great Mystery” (2023). Monkman, a Cree artist known for putting his own spin on traditional Western art, was commissioned to create art for Dartmouth’s collections by Jami Powell, associate director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Indigenous Art. “The Great Mystery” (2023) combines two of the Hood’s other works, with Rothko’s “Lilac and Orange over Ivory” (1953) depicted in the background of “The Great Mystery” and Dallin’s sculpture, “Appeal to the Great Spirit” (1922) in the front. 

“Lilac and Orange over Ivory” (1953) is an abstract oil painting depicting suspended rectangles in a light purple and saturated orange. “Appeal to the Great Spirit” (1922) is a bronze sculpture that narrates the ongoing Euro-American beliefs of the “vanishing race,” or the erasure of Indigenous people in North America. The sculpture was installed in the Tower Room in 1928 and was removed a few years ago, replaced by Monkman’s challenging exhibition. Monkman’s “The Great Mystery” (2023) positions Rothko’s abstract painting behind Dallin’s sculpture, twisted to depict Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testicle, on a dark horse with her hands in the air as if she were saying, “I’m still here!” 

Monkman’s new pieces on view at the Hood show the interconnectedness of all humans and put a new spin on traditional and often problematic art. His juxtapositions provide a more nuanced history of Indigenous peoples and present further evidence of the journey the College has made toward supporting Indigenous peoples. 

A piece by Valeria Hagarty called “George Washington (On A Stick)” (2006) also stands out as one of the collection’s most unique works. Hagarty transforms another iconic piece of art — a portrait of Washington — to make it look as if Washington is melting on top of a large stick. This piece explores Washington’s political and military successes that came at the hands of at least 577 enslaved and exploited people. Washington’s army destroyed Native American villages and stole their lands, inspiring the more violent portrayal of Washington in this piece. Hagarty sets the piece atop a stick to accentuate the fragility of the incomplete history of Washington that often goes untold. 

Although the College’s collection contains a multitude of additional works, Fournier’s “Wampum Belt” (2022), a gift of the Mohegan people to Dartmouth College in 2022 after the College repatriated Samson Occom’s papers, holds great significance. Occom, a critical figure to the founding of Dartmouth and a citizen of the Mohegan Tribe, was betrayed by Wheelock after the funds Occom raised for the education of Native Americans were instead used to educate the sons of American colonists. The returning of Occom’s papers to their rightful owners sought to make amends with the Mohegan people and reinforce Occom’s importance to Dartmouth’s history. 

The Wampum belt signifies the beginning of a new relationship and mutual obligation between the Dartmouth community and the Mohegan people. The purple beads on the belt signify Occom, the Mohegan people and a history of conflict, while the white beads denote Dartmouth and hope for a positive relationship with the Indigenous community. The figures depicted by the purple and white beads are holding hands, symbolizing newfound friendship and a joining of people together. 

Although the original 1985 installment of “Dartmouth’s Treasures” has not been recreated since, the College’s collection certainly still contains many works that are culturally and artistically significant. From a college founded to assimilate Native Americans, to one that recognizes its shortcomings and makes amends with the Mohegan people, the collection now demonstrates how far we have come since the first piece of art was collected in 1773. It is remarkable that we have made such strides, but the true “treasure” lies in the amends we have made along the way and the acceptance that, as a College, we still have much farther to go.