European Inventory Project – Alaska State Museum
Alaskans Seek Native Artifacts in European Museums

Preliminary Report Published


“As I hurried through the park, I had a glimpse of how it must have been to be living in the fullness of Southeast Indian culture before the Westerners came along. That wasn’t too long ago, yet the distance between the past and the present is turning into an ever widening gorge of cultural vacuum. Who is responsible for Alaska’s artistic creations that lie under the elements of sun, wind, and rain? Should it be our concern that the best and early pieces of Alaskan artifacts sit in humidity controlled cases in famous museums thousands of miles away and never seen by homebound Alaskans?

“The State of Alaska must accept the responsibility of stewardship over this matter as it readily accepts stewardship over other socially edifying programs. We must maintain, restore, and account for these ancient records of history and legends on wood for us and for future Alaskan generations and the world to see and reflect upon.”

These words were written during the 11th Alaska Legislature by Representative Thelma Buchholdt after she had made a visit to Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan. They were directed to the Chairman of the House Finance Committee in request for funds to begin an inventory of Alaskan ethnographic material located in European museums. Untold numbers of Alaskan Native cultural material have been removed from Alaska since the middle 8th Century explorations of Vitus Bering. Chirikof, Cook, Billings, Saychev, Vancouver, Lisiansky, Etolin, Voznesensky, Zagoskin, Krause, and Jacobsen are others who collected artifacts in Alaska between 1741 and 1900.

Unfortunately, ethnographic material from this period is not well represented nor is it made available in Alaska today. Organizations in the state concerned with the management of Native cultural resources must, in large part, rely on materials outside of Alaska to fill this information void.

As a result of Representative Buchholdt’s initiative, an inventory was organized by the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. The plan included:

(1) Identifying which museums have significant Alaskan collections and obtaining the cooperation of the curators;

(2) Photographing Alaskan materials in those collections that were collected between 1741 and 1900.

(3) Requesting loans of select pieces of these collections for traveling exhibits in Alaska.

(4) Recruitment of Alaska Native artists to review these collections and replicate significant pieces for inclusion in the State Museum.

Cooperation was formally obtained from six museums:

The Museum of Mankind in London

The Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Leningrad

The National Museum of Finland in Helsinki

The Museum fur Volkekunde in Berlin

The Museum fur Volkekunde in Hamburg

The Ubersee Museum in Bremen.

During the preliminary phase of the European Inventory, the museum field staff was able to take over 3,000 photographs, both in color and black and white. Over 1,000 items were photographed from various angles and in close-up.

Outstanding examples of Aleut needlework and ivory carving were seen in both Leningrad and Helsinki, representing examples of early technology no longer produces by the Aleuts. Early Athapaskan garments with exquisite quill work were seen in Helsinki and Berlin. Powerful examples of Tlingit carvings were seen in Leningrad and Bremen. Little known examples of Copper River masks were seen in Berlin, belonging perhaps to the Chugach or Eyak people. A marvelous suit of walrus hide armor, from St. Lawrence Island, was seen in Leningrad.

Due to time limitations, only parts of the collections visited were seen and photographed. There are numerous other museums in the U.S.S.R. and Europe, not to mention the continental U.S. and Canada, which wait the next phase of this enormous undertaking, which is expected to take ten years.

An illustrated booklet about the project has been published by the Alaska State Museum “Preliminary Report, European Inventory Project: Alaska State Museum,” and is available from the Alaska State Museum, Juneau, AK 99811. A more complete report is planned for publication this summer.

Ellen H. Hays, one of the field workers on this first European inventory, for ten years active in the Visitor Center of Sitka National Historical Park and now a Guest Curator at the Alaska State Museum and the Alaska Native Liaison Officer for the National Park Service, writes:

“This is an ambitious program indeed, with tremendous potential benefits; especially important is the opportunity to conduct technical and functional research rather than research from an artistic point of view alone.

“There is much to be learned about people from the materials they used, their designs, and the form and function of their objects. Children and students of all ages would come closer to their heritage through research, publications and teaching.

“A dimension of research and publication as yet unavailable is near and can be a means whereby Alaska can take the lead position of good stewardship and management of museum resources, which are located in many places and usable in some of the ways I have mentioned above.

“The past has brought to Alaska rapid and dramatic change, change which also brought immeasurable cultural loss. Some of that loss can now be retrieved through such a program as has been suggested here.”