Anthropologist Burton Benedict dies at age 87

Burton Benedict, a professor emeritus of social anthropology at UC Berkeley and former director of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, died of heart failure on Sunday (Sept. 19) at his Berkeley home. He was 87.

Benedict conducted his early anthropological fieldwork in the Indian Ocean island territories of Mauritius and Seychelles. A groundbreaking 1982 ethnography, “Men, Women and Money in the Seychelles: Two Views,” co-authored by Benedict and his wife, Marion, remains must reading in anthropology decades later.

Burton Benedict

Burton Benedict

Benedict’s interests were wide ranging, from Islamic sects in London to second-generation Chinese in Boston, from world fairs to museums. He joined UC Berkeley’s anthropology faculty in 1968, after teaching for a decade at the London School of Economics.

In 1984, Benedict became associate director of the Hearst Museum, which at the time was called the Lowie Museum of Anthropology. He was the acting director there in 1988, and director from 1989 to 1994. In 1991, he received the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s top honor.

Benedict once said one of his major accomplishments was a 1982 exhibit at the Hearst Museum based on the 635-acre 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exhibition, which he called “the last naïve view of a brighter and better world.” Historian Gray Brechin called the exhibition “a festival of self-congratulation and advertisement for the city that had so rapidly risen from the ashes of (the earthquake of) 1906.”

The fair took place in San Francisco’s Marina District, where the Palace of Fine Arts still stands today. It featured a 435-foot Tower of Jewels covered with more than 100,000 faceted glass jewels, each backed by a tiny mirror, and a gigantic and working Underwood typewriter that was 15 feet high, 22 feet wide and weighed 14 tons. The first transcontinental phone calls were made from the exposition.

The Hearst exhibit became one of the museum’s most successful exhibits and led Benedict to produce a survey of world’s fairs from London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 to the Japan World Exposition in Osaka in 1970 in a 1983 book, “The Anthropology of World’s Fairs: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915.”

In addition, Benedict wrote, produced and narrated a 1984 documentary, “The 1915 Panama Pacific Fair,” which won the Western Heritage Award for the best television documentary film of 1984 from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Foundation.

Lesley A. Sharp, an anthropology professor at Barnard College in New York City and a former student of Benedict’s, said that in his short time leading the Hearst Museum, Benedict “transformed the dusty (and underfunded) space of the Lowie Museum into the vibrant Hearst Museum, where his curatorial decisions were driven by a cautious, thoughtful interest in the politics of display.”

Patrick Kirch, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and of integrative biology and a former director of the Hearst Museum, was one of Benedict’s longtime colleagues and friends. He recalled that Benedict began a positive relationship with the William Randolph Hearst Foundation that led to a major endowment gift from the foundation to help conserve and support the Phoebe Hearst core collections at the museum. Kirch added that Benedict was at the helm in1991 when the museum changed its name from the Lowie, in honor of Robert H. Lowie, a pioneer in the UC Berkeley anthropology department, to the Hearst, to reflect Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s crucial role as the museum’s founder and patron.

“Although some disagreed at the time with the accompanying name change, I believe that Benedict did the right thing,” Kirch said. “He was also highly supportive of faculty and student research with the museum’s collections.”

Benedict also chaired the campus’s Department of Anthropology and served as the first dean of the social sciences for UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science. Benedict counted among his accomplishments as dean the establishment of the Sherwood L. Washburn teaching laboratories for undergraduates enrolled in the Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Introduction to Archaeology classes, and the procurement of previously forbidden joint faculty appointments for husbands and wives.

Benedict was born on May 20, 1923 in Baltimore, Md. He began his studies in higher education at Harvard University, intending to study ornithology. But when World War II erupted, Benedict joined the U.S. Army Air Force, which took him to New Mexico, where he was introduced to the Pueblo Indians. Interactions with the Pueblo enticed him to study anthropology when he returned to Harvard University after the war.

He earned an A.B. degree in anthropology from Harvard in 1945. Benedict, who once described himself as “a terrific Anglophile, brought up reading Shakespeare and seeing British films,” went on to earn a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the London School of Economics in 1954. He then spent a year as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal and returned to Great Britain to teach at the London School of Economics before joining UC Berkeley.

In a 2002 interview, Benedict described himself as “always an empiricist, meaning I liked to write the facts — before we discovered they really didn’t exist.” Sharp called him a maverick, “albeit a cautious and thoughtful one.”

After retiring from UC Berkeley in 1994, Benedict was a volunteer docent at the Hearst Museum and a trustee of the Oakland Zoo. In 2000, he mounted an exhibit at the Oakland Zoo of early hominids in a replicated Kikuyu hut, using casts that he obtained of 3.7 million- year-old footprints found in Tanzania in 1978 by Mary Leakey. The prints were exhibited so that children could walk in them.

Benedict also taught a course on the anthropology of museums for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a division of UC Berkeley Extension in 2004.

Benedict was an avid collector long before he had the job of directing a real museum, according to his daughters. He collected Indian and African figurines, Native American artifacts, world’s fair souvenirs, coins and medals, postcards and many other items, which he carefully catalogued and displayed in his study with professionalism and taste.

Benedict is survived by his wife, Marion Benedict of Berkeley, Calif., and his two daughters: Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, who lives in New York City; and Barbara Benedict, a professor of literature at Trinity College, who lives in West Hartford, Ct.

The Department of Anthropology will announce plans for a memorial service at a later time.

An extensive account of Benedict’s life can be found on the website of the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.