Ger­man mu­seum re­turns art to in­dige­nous Alaskans

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - NEWS -

BER­LIN » A Ber­lin mu­seum has re­turned an­cient wooden masks, an idol and other spir­i­tu­ally sig­nif­i­cant ar­ti­facts plun­dered from graves by an ex­plorer to in­dige­nous Alaskans, end­ing an odyssey in which many of the items were thought for­ever lost.

The masks, carved from spruce or hem­lock, are daubed with red pig­ment — a tra­di­tional tinc­ture made of seal oil, hu­man blood and pow­der from a stone that in­di­cate they were used in burial cer­e­monies by tribes in the Chugach area of Alaska.

One mask comes to a sharp point at the top, sym­bol­iz­ing the deceased’s tran­si­tion to the spirit world. An­other shows a face with one eye open and the other closed.

Their ex­act age hasn’t been de­ter­mined, but they’re thought to be up to 1,000 years old. They were taken from graves in caves on Chenega Is­land in Alaska’s Prince Wil­liam Sound and a place known as San­radna, whose ex­act lo­ca­tion is no longer known, said John John­son, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Chugach Alaska Cor­po­ra­tion. The group to­day rep­re­sents the re­gion’s in­dige­nous peo­ple.

“They’re a con­nec­tion be­tween the dead and the liv­ing, the fu­ture and the past,” he said Wed­nes­day. “If you look, one eye open, one eye shut, it’s like trav­el­ing be­tween two worlds.”

The nine ar­ti­facts were among some 200 Chugach items col­lected for Ger­many’s Royal Mu­seum of Eth­nol­ogy by Nor­we­gian ad­ven­turer Jo­han Adrian Ja­cob­sen be­tween 1882 and 1884.

Sev­eral were thought lost at the end of World War II af­ter be­ing looted from the mu­seum by Soviet Red Army troops, but they resur­faced in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia. They were then given to a mu­seum in Leipzig in com­mu­nist East Ger­many in the 1970s.

Ber­lin’s Eth­no­log­i­cal Mu­seum only learned in the 1980s that they had sur­vived and even­tu­ally se­cured their re­turn.

John­son learned of their ex­is­tence from Ja­cob­sen’s jour­nals, where the ex­plorer de­tailed how he had found them in caves and taken them. He traced them to the Eth­no­log­i­cal Mu­seum.

He led a del­e­ga­tion to Ber­lin in 2015 and has been work­ing since then with the mu­seum and the Prus­sian Cul­tural Her­itage Foun­da­tion, which over­sees Ber­lin’s mu­se­ums, to es­tab­lish their prove­nance and or­ga­nize resti­tu­tion.

Other items col­lected by Ja­cob­sen were de­ter­mined to have been fairly ob­tained through pur­chase or trade.

Else­where, Den­mark has al­ready re­turned hu­man re­mains that were taken from the Chugach area. John­son said much work re­mains re­search­ing the prove­nance of other ar­ti­facts scat­tered in mu­se­ums around the U.S. and the world, in­clud­ing Bri­tain, Rus­sia and Fin­land.

“Some­times mu­se­ums feel that this is the end, that it’s a sad day, but this is re­ally a new be­gin­ning,” he said. “The more you work to­gether, the more you un­der­stand and en­joy the sig­nif­i­cance of these ar­ti­facts.”

Prus­sian Cul­tural Her­itage Foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent Her­mann Parzinger care­fully handed one of the masks to John­son at a cer­e­mony Wed­nes­day, say­ing he hoped they could work to­gether on fu­ture his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural projects.

Work is un­der­way on an ex­hi­bi­tion on Ja­cob­sen, who brought thou­sands of items to Ger­many from set­tle­ments on the north­west coast of Canada and Alaska. It will of­fer what Parzinger said will be a “crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of the his­tory of the col­lec­tion from to­day’s per­spec­tive.”

The self-pro­claimed cap­tain’s ac­counts are more ad­ven­ture than an­thro­po­log­i­cal, Parzinger said.

“Jo­han Adrian Ja­cob­sen was no aca­demic, he was a sailor,” he said.

Ide­ally the ar­ti­facts re­turned Wed­nes­day would go back into the caves from which they were taken, John­son said, but since that’s im­pos­si­ble to do with­out risk­ing their de­struc­tion, the hope is that they will be put on pub­lic dis­play in a re­gional mu­seum.

“They say a pic­ture’s worth 1,000 words, but when you have the ob­ject it could be a mil­lion,” he said. “You learn so much when you see them up close.”

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