Museum Pasts in the Present

In 1897, two teams of researchers affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History embarked on what is considered perhaps the most ambitious expedition in the history of American ethnology. The Jesup Expedition, named after then-President of the Museum, Morris K. Jesup, was designed to determine whether the first people to populate the Americas had migrated across the Bering Strait. While Dr. Franz Boas studied the Native peoples on the northwest coast of North America, he sent Russian revolutionaries Waldemar Jochelson and Waldemar Bogoras and German-American philologist Berthold Laufer to study Siberia. Together, these teams compiled thousands of photographs and recordings of people, objects, languages, and customs in an effort to compare the cultures on either side of the Strait.

Collaboration between AMNH and Siberian scholars

In 1998, Alexia Bloch (now Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of British Columbia; then an AMNH post-doc) and I embarked on a six-week version of the Jesup Expedition, just in time for its centenary. In the intervening years, the Soviet Union had profoundly reshaped life in Siberia, and Native Siberian cultures had barely survived. Attempted revivals of native culture had been taking place since late Soviet times, but new opportunities to rethink heritage and the legacies of a complex history were also challenged by the precariousness of post-Soviet life in the late 1990s. On our 1998 journey across Siberia, Bloch and I reconnected Native Siberian scholars, artisans, and ordinary people with the history of the Jesup Expedition and the resource base it established in New York. Wielding CDs of the collections at the American Museum of Natural History and exhibition catalogs of expedition photographs, Bloch and I made our way to several cities in the region.

Today, AMNH researchers continue to work with Native scholars and communities from Siberia on a variety of projects to carry on the legacy of the Jesup Expedition. In the AMNH Object Conservation Lab, objects collected at the turn of the 20th century are being restored and protected using 21st century technology.

More information about the Conservation of Siberian Collections project

Many Siberian Native scholars and artisans have now visited AMNH. In May 2012, a delegation of master craftsmen and Native experts from the Sakha Republic in the Russian Federation came to the American Museum of Natural History to see a selection of objects from the Jesup collections. Two members of the delegation, Fedor Chiarin and Anna Nikiforovna, were descendants of the Orosin family and believe that their ancestors made several of the Sakha pieces in the AMNH collection. Much of the Orosin legacy in Siberia was publicly burned after the Soviet Revolution. The visiting delegation presented the Museum with a hand-carved choron goblet in the traditional Sakha style, made by Sofron Egorovich Orosin, a cousin Fedor Chiarin.

More information about the visit from Sakha Republic

"The end of a world is thus the beginning of a new one" (xvi).

Museum Pasts in the Present

Part travel book, part ethnography, The Museum at the End of the World chronicles my six-week journey with Alexia Bloch through Siberia to connect Native Siberians and Siberian institutions to archival material collected during the Jesup Expedition.
The "end" of the world imagined in the book refers less to geography than to the temporality of the post-Soviet moment as experienced in 1998. As we traveled from place to place, the people we spoke to told stories about the legacy of the past on the present and future of a culture. In a series of conversations with Native and non-Native residents of Northeast Siberia, The Museum at the End of the World sheds light on cultural preservation, persistence, and enormous challenges, both in daily life and in the museum.