Grave Goods From Alaska

18.12.2017Grave Goods From Alaska

The SPK is returning nine objects from the Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. We asked Monika Zessnik, the curator of the North America collection at the museum, how this came about.

By Birgit Jöbstl

Wooden mask of the Chugach from the collection of Johan Adrian Jacobsen © Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Peter Jacob
Wooden mask of the Chugach from the collection of Johan Adrian Jacobsen © Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Peter Jacob

Ms. Zessnik, who are the Chugach? 

Monika Zessnik: The Chugach represent a broader group of different Native peoples from southwest Alaska. The objects being returned by the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) are going to the Chugach Alaska Corporation, which looks after the interests of all these groups.

What kinds of object are they?

They are grave goods, such as fragments of wooden masks, oil lamps and a cradleboard  for an infant. They were brought to Berlin by Johan Adrian Jacobsen, who went on a collecting expedition in North America – in particular the American northwest coast and Alaska - between 1882 and 1884. He had been commissioned by the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Museum of Ethnology) in Berlin. He left a very detailed account of his travels. From this, it appears that he opened tombs without permission, neither from government authorities nor from the indigenous groups whose ancestors were buried in them.

How did you come across these grave goods? 

Chugach Alaska Corporation

The Chugach Alaska Corporation was created by an act of law in 1972 to represent the interests of the indigenous peoples of the Chugach region of Alaska. Among other activities, it works to preserve the cultural heritage of these groups. 

Grave Goods

The objects come from various graves on Chenega Island and a place named as Sanradna, whose location is no longer known. Among them are two broken masks and an infant's cradle , as well as a wooden idol. After being used in ceremonies, masks were usually burned or laid in graves, which is why not many masks of the Chugach people exist today. The red color on these indicates a funereal context. The wooden idol is probably a shamanic figure, meant to protect people from danger and death.

In the fall of 2015, a delegation from the Chugach Alaska Corporation visited the Ethnologisches Museum because the Chugach plan to compile a digital exhibition of tribal objects that are kept in museums around the world, so that the members of the community can learn more about their own history. In the course of this visit, we and the delegation inspected the objects that we have in the Ethnologisches Museum. Among them were these grave goods. The representatives of the Chugach knew, from Jacobsen's travelogue, that he had taken them from an archaeological site or a burial ground within Chugach territory.

„At the time, these objects were taken without the consent of the Alaska Natives and were therefore removed unlawfully from the graves of their deceased, so they do not belong in our museums. We will now be returning them to the Chugach Alaska Corporation, with whom we have been working to re-examine our collection since 2015.“

Hermann Parzinger, President of the SPK

And did the Chugach then demand that they be returned? 

We received an initial letter from the Chugach in February 2016, asking us to assist them with making a Request for Return. We then showed them the official route to take, which involves the United States government sending a Verbal Note to the German Foreign Office. The whole thing took until 2017, owing to the US elections. The experts at the SPK were in favor of a return and the German Foreign Office endorsed this. Once all of the opinions had been provided, we submitted the case to the Foundation Board, which decided that the objects should be returned.

What will happen to the objects now, will they be reinterred?

No – they are not human remains. The Chugach want to put the objects on display in their own museum in the cultural center. 

How are your relations with the Chugach today, and how is work progressing on the digital exhibition, which was the reason for their first visit? 

We want to record all of the objects that we have from the Chugach digitally – that's more than two hundred items – in 3D, if possible. But it will take some time, because our efforts are currently focused on relocating the collection to the Humboldt Forum. 

General policy of the SPK on dealing with its non-European collections and researching their provenances

The proper approach to dealing with non-European objects and their history has been a subject of public debate for some years now. On the basis of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Foundation) has developed basic principles for dealing with these collections. The SPK considers that a proper approach should include, among other things, seeking knowledge of the origin of the objects in its collections and promoting open dialogue with the communities of origin.  

General policy of the SPK on dealing with its non-European collections and researching their provenances (in German) 

So does this mean that Chugach objects will not be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum?

Not at the time when it is opened, as things stand now. But the Humboldt Forum also has large areas that are reserved for temporary exhibitions. Our initial goal is to establish a stable working relationship with the Chugach over the next two to three years, including provenance research. Of course, for that we need resources from both sides. We would ultimately like to tell people about this process in the form of an exhibition, and we could well imagine it being shown both in the Humboldt Forum and in Alaska. 

Of your remaining Chugach objects, could there be more that have to be returned? 

We've shown the Chugach all of our objects, and these are the only ones that they've requested us to return. We are considering working with them to find out what objects and archival documents exist in other collections in Europe, because we hope this might provide us with further insight into the provenance of the collection that we are responsible for in the Ethnologisches Museum. 

What is the situation with the rest of the objects that Johan Adrian Jacobsen brought back from his expedition? Are there any other objects that Jacobsen might have acquired in questionable circumstances? Should more objects be returned? 

I can't give a blanket answer to that; returning an object is not always the only possible solution, nor is it always desired. The circumstances of its acquisition and its significance to the community of origin need to be carefully clarified in each case and then, depending on what is found, a choice can be made from a variety of conceivable solutions. To be sure, there are also objects that have been legitimately acquired, but are nonetheless of great significance to their communities of origin. In these cases, maybe they can go back on loan. 

We will be looking at this topic in the Humboldt Forum, where we will have a feature on Jacobsen's journey along the northwest coast. Altogether, he brought around three thousand objects from there to Berlin. Our narrative thread there will be his account of his travels, which contains very interesting information. From our point of view, of course, he is not at all politically correct, because he has a very Eurocentric view of the world, as was usual in those days. Jacobsen assumed that the cultures he encountered were in danger of extinction, or that they would adapt to the – supposedly more advanced – lifestyle of the Europeans, and that their cultural heritage was therefore in danger of disappearing. Of course, we cannot let a historical account like that pass without comment.

In addition to the historical collection and the travelogue, our idea is to present the voices and viewpoints of indigenous peoples from the northwest coast from today's perspective. It doesn't all have to be verbal – visual representations can help people get an idea of things as well. Take Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, for example, who is a very interesting graphic novelist from the Haida people. He has developed a style that relates to traditional pictorial elements, but goes in the direction of manga. We can certainly imagine some kind of collaboration there. And the exhibition should continue to develop so that visitors can continually discover new perspectives.

Johan Adrian Jacobsen © Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Archiv
Johan Adrian Jacobsen © Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Archiv

Johan Adrian Jacobsen

Johan Adrian Jacobsen traveled along the American northwest coast and in Alaska at the end of the nineteenth century. He did so on behalf of the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Museum of Ethnology) in Berlin. The director of the museum at the time, Adolf Bastian, had commissioned him to collect objects that were as "original" as possible, untainted by European culture. Jacobsen returned to Berlin with around three thousand objects from the northwest coast and around four thousand objects from Alaska. His account of the journey is an impressive historical document. It is characterized, however, less by accurate ethnographic observations than by tales of derring-do, told by a hard-nosed adventurer.

Dossier-Article “Käpt'n Jacobsens Gespür für das Ende der Welt“ (in German)

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