Byline: The Log Staff
AVALON — The Catalina Island Museum recently uncovered a large cache of original papers and photographs documenting the earliest excavations on Catalina Island by amateur archaeologist Ralph Glidden.
Glidden’s research into many of North America’s earliest human settlements was both groundbreaking and highly controversial. He spent his later years doing research on Catalina Island.
In 1924, Glidden opened the first museum on Catalina Island: the Museum of the American Indian on the Channel Islands. The facility became a major tourist attraction, although its exhibits of skulls and bones were presented in more of a sensational “sideshow” style than a traditional museum.
While searching through the Catalina Island Museum’s archives, curator John Boraggina discovered numerous journals, personal letters, albums, newspaper articles and, most significantly, hundreds of photographs that Glidden had compiled during his years of his research on the island.
Many of the recently discovered photographs provide views of the museum, and Glidden’s use of skeletal remains as a macabre form of decoration.
The archive of material provides the kind of documentation of Glidden’s excavations that many scholars believed either did not exist or had been lost. Found in two modestly sized boxes in the museum’s research center, the entire archive is related to the hundreds of sites Glidden excavated on the island between 1919 and 1928.
Glidden uncovered thousands of artifacts over the years, which reside today in the permanent collection of the Catalina Island Museum.
The archive of documents recently discovered has been described as a “missing link” that provides written and visual documentation of the thousands of skeletons and artifacts uncovered by Glidden during his nearly 10 years of excavating Santa Catalina.
“I think this archive lends a more complex portrait of the man,” Boraggina said. “You have to acknowledge that Glidden exploited Native American remains in the most insensitive manner imaginable. He resorted to crass sensationalism when trying to sell tickets. On the other hand, we now know that while excavating he attempted, at times, to subscribe to a standard of archaeology prevalent during his day.”
“None of the Glidden archive had ever been exhibited,” said Dr. Michael De Marsche, executive director of the Catalina Island Museum. “I assumed my position less than two years ago, and we now know that some 20 years ago research took place on the collection, but then it was all put in boxes and placed on a shelf.
“I know scholars from other museums have asked if it might exist,” De Marsche said. “But our records were so poor that we didn’t know. We have no central catalog listing all the material in our archive. The boxes John discovered were simply marked ‘Glidden.’
We’re in the midst of updating and organizing everything, but this won’t be fully accomplished for years.”