By MARILYN MCMAHON
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Dr. Jan Timbrook, PhD, cheerfully admits she has been a “basket case” ever since she began working at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in 1974.
Because of her diligent research, fundraising efforts and luck, the museum has a collection of about 1,000 baskets from tribes all over the world, including 50 Chumash baskets, the most in any museum, including the Smithsonian.
“We started out with three of them. They are the gems of the collection because all are more than 100 years old, and there are only 500 in the world, so we have 10 percent of them,” said Dr. Timbrook, 72, who retired last year after a 45-year career at the museum as curator of ethnography and curator of ethnobotany. She continues to work at the museum as curator emerita because “I can’t just close the door and walk away.”
Ethnography, she explained, is the study of living people and their culture, and ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between humans and the plant world.
“It was the perfect job for me with my background in cultural anthropology and art,” said Dr. Timbook, who grew up in the Bay Area and earned her bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology and studio art with an emphasis on ceramics at UCSB in 1970.
Her career at the Natural History Museum began as an assistant to Travis Hudson, then curator of anthropology.
“My first tasks were to catalog and roll folded Navajo rugs, smoothing out the kinks and identifying their origins. Then, I turned my attention to California Indian baskets, which I’ve been stuck on ever since,” said Dr. Timbrook, pointing out that Chumash weavers have studied these baskets to revive traditional techniques.
Museum visitors have benefited from her expertise in basketry and other aspects of native material culture in the series of exhibits she developed in the Fleischmann Auditorium, revealing the diversity of native artistry through baskets, textiles, bead work and more.
Dr. Timbrook also worked with Mr. Hudson to organize, translate and make accessible thousands of pages of field notes by the prolific ethnographer, John P. Harrington, who interviewed native people, including many local Chumash people, about their cultures.
“In about 1978, a body of Harrington’s notes on ethnobotany came to light, and it fit perfectly with the training in botany I had obtained from Dr. Bob Haller at UCSB, as well as my anthropology experience in school and at the museum. So I knew the plants and a fair amount about Chumash culture, I could read Spanish, and I was already familiar with Harrington’s difficult handwriting. This is what I was meant to do!” said Dr. Timbrook.
She got research grants to study the original Harrington notes and plant specimens at the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C.
“I was able to botanically identify the decades-old pressed plants and match them to the Chumash and Spanish names in the field notes. I devoted myself to bring native plant knowledge to light,” said Dr. Timbrook, whose research led her to return to UCSB for her master’s degree in anthropology in 1984 and her Ph.D. in 2008 when she was 60 years old.
Her doctoral thesis, “Chumash Ethnobotany,” was later published as a book titled “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California.”
“I’ve had a very nontraditional career trajectory — I got the job first, wrote the book and then got the degree. It’s been kind of a wild ride,” she said with a laugh.
Over the course of her long career, Dr. Timbrook has worked with members of the California Indian Advisory Council, who advise the museum staff on how cultural heritage collections should be handled and interpreted.
For her efforts, the children of Mary Yee, the last native speaker of any Chumash language, chose to name the ethnobotanical exhibit the Sukinanik’oy Garden, which means “bringing back to life,” as Yee’s descendants felt the museum was helping revive their culture.
“The garden is not only a collection of useful plants but an opportunity to see the plants as the people who first named them saw them. The etymologies reveal belief, ecological relationships and sometimes a sense of humor like ‘Frog’s loincloth,’ “ said Dr. Timbrook, adding “I am so blessed to have found my life’s work at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and to have been able to give back to Chumash people some of the cultural knowledge preserved by their ancestors.”