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Asian Ethnographic Collection

Men in masks. Anadyr, Russia, 1901.
Photograph by Waldemar Bogoras.
Negative No: 22315, AMNH Library.


The Museum's holdings in Asian ethnology make up the finest collection in the Western hemisphere. A large part of the collection was made by early anthropologists, who gathered extraordinarily detailed documentation. The collection is comprehensive and includes virtually all object types made of every conceivable material.

It encompasses more than 60,000 catalog entries, many referring to multiple objects. The objects in this collection span an immense range of diversity of cultures: form semi-sedentary agriculturalists in the rain forests of Malaysia, to Bedouin nomads, and to the peasants and poets, philosophers and statesmen of India and China, the world's oldest enduring civilizations.

This collection provides an invaluable resource that has been utilized by scholars from throughout the United States and around the globe. Objects from this collection are frequently requested for exhibitions.

Two expeditions, mounted by the Museum at the turn-of-the-century made significant collections that became the foundation of the Asian Ethnographic Collection. Under the auspices of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, described as the "foremost expedition in the history of American anthropology" (Freed and Freed 1988: 7), Berthold Laufer, Waldemar Jochelson, and Waldemar Borgoras conducted ethnographic research and made collections in Siberia, Manchuria, and on Sakhalin Island. Laufer worked among the Nivkhi (Gilyak), Evenk, and Ainu on Sakhalin Island and the Nanai (Golde) of the Amur River. Bogoras studied the Chukchi and Yupik (Siberian Eskimo), and Jochelson the Koryak, Yukaghir, and Sakha (Yakut). The collections, along with the expeditionists' written ethnographies, were intended to constitute a comprehensive record of the peoples they studied. Collections thus include tools, weapons, boats, sleds, items of daily use, clothing, toys, musical instruments, charms, amulets, ritual equipment, and shaman paraphernalia. These were combined with written fieldnotes, wax disk recordings, photographs, and following the science of the day, head measurements and plaster head casts. As an example of the comprehensiveness of collecting, Laufer supplemented several of fish-skin applique garments from the Nivkh and Nanai with tools used in their manufacture, birch bark patterns, and examples of parallel design motifs in other media. The Jesup collection is considered the most significant collection of the peoples of the Russian Far East (Siberia) outside of Russia. Ethnographies authored by members of the expedition and illustrated with objects from the collection, are a well-known scholarly resource. Studies of shamanism, in particular, make frequent reference to this work.

Additional Resources: Objects and Photographs from Jesup North Pacific Expedition

Between 1901 and 1904, Bethold Laufer, who would become one of the most distinguished Sinologists of his generation, led the Jacob H. Schiff expedition to China where he was to make a comprehensive ethnographic collection and to conduct scholarly research on the history and culture of a sophisticated people that had not yet experienced the industrial transformation. As with his earlier work on the Amur River, Laufer's effort was intended to be comprehensive, an impossible task given the geographic breadth, historical depth, and social complexity of late Imperial China. Following Boas's ethnographic mandate, Laufer made an extinsive collection of representative objects used in daily life, agriculture, folk religion, medicine, and in the practice of such crafts as printing, bookbinding, carpentry, enamelware, ceramics, and laquerware. Following his own scholarly interests, Laufer also collected antique bronzes and Han Dynasty ceramics; the later are described in his now classic publication on this subject. A library of old and rare Chinese books, purchased by Laufer to facilitate his subsequent research on the China collection, is housed in the new rare book room of the Museum Library. Laufer's interest in the theater led him to make the most extensive collection of Chinese puppets in North America including shadow puppets, rod puppets, and glove puppets in several regional styles, and to record performances on wax cylinders. The collection also includes costumes, musical instruments, and stilts for the Yang Ko folk drama. While Chinese high art is well represented in Museum collections throughout the world, the Laufer collection, preserving a record of Chinese life as it was lived at the turn of the century, is of value to both anthropologists and social historians.

Additional Resources: Objects from Laufer China Expedition

Boas envisaged a complete ethnographic record of the cultures of the Pacific rim. To this end, Basford Dean and W. C. James were commissioned to make collections of Ainu material and C. C. Vinton to collect in Korea. While none of these men were professional ethnographers, they were well acquainted with the areas where they made their collections and had been briefed by Museum anthropologists concerning the objectives, scope, and methods of making an ethnographic collection. Our Ainu collection, with 450 objects, is one of the largest in North America, second only to the Brooklyn Museum's collection.

When possible, ethnologists in the field were commissioned to make comprehensive and well documented collections for the museum. Particularly noteworthy are collections made by Denton among the Senoi-Semai of the Malay Peninsula, Dupree in Afghanistan, Karader in Iran, and Erin in Turkey. The Denton collection is particularly piognant insofar as the rainforest environment of the peoples he studied no longer exists.

Pivate collectors have also enhanced our holdings; the Whitney collection of Tibetan religious objects and the Drummond collection of Chinese jades and laquerware are particularly well known. Our Armenian material came to us through the work of Mrs. Eleanora Acopin Ordjanian who gathered the artifacts of this scattered refugee community - costumes, needlework, metalwork, and religious objects - into a single collection as a permanent record of Armenian life.

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