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John Wesley Powell was a professor of natural sciences at Illinois Wesleyan University from 1865-1868. Campus legend tells us that he presented this collection to the University in the mid-1880s while he was serving as the first director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology.
In 1943 a fire destroyed Hedding Hall (Old Main), the campus building which housed IWU’s records about the pottery collection and its sizeable natural history collection. Since the fire destroyed information on provenance (the origin and past ownership) of these artifacts, we may never know with certainty if their arrival was at Powell’s direction.
However, through records obtained from the Smithsonian’s Archives and through markings on most of the objects themselves, we can confirm that these artifacts were collected by Bureau of American Ethnology field teams. We have also learned from today’s Smithsonian staff that by the late 1800s, there were already more objects held by the Smithsonian than they could care for, so it became common practice to make “permanent loans” to institutions throughout the United States.
Our research into the history of these objects continues and we may yet find the missing links detailing their journey here. In the interim, we hope you enjoy the information we are able to provide. If you have further questions or are interested in arranging group or individual research on the collection, please visit the Tate Archives & Special Collection on the 4th floor of the library or call (309) 556-1535.
Notes on Terminology