Conservation of Siberian Collections

by Judith Levinson, Jessica Pace, Amy Tjiong on

Conservation of Siberian Collections

The Siberian collections at the American Museum of Natural History are one of the world’s most important collections of cultural artifacts from Northeast Siberia, and is the largest and most comprehensive holding of its kind outside of Russia. Comprising approximately 5,200 objects, these collections were created in 1897-1902 as a result of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, which was planned and directed by Museum curator, Franz Boas, now widely regarded as the "Father of Modern Anthropology". During their travels, the anthropologists who took part in the Expedition believed that they were making a final record of vanishing cultures on both sides of the Bering Sea.

Map drawn by Franz Boas
1896 (?) Hand-Colored Culture Distribution Map drawn by Franz Boas. AMNH Catalog No: Z/171.

In 2014, the Division of Anthropology was awarded funding from The Institute of Museum and Library Services - Museums for America and the Stockman Family Foundation Trust to undertake a 22-month project to preserve portions of its renowned Siberian collections.

Storage for Siberian collection
Storage for Siberian collection.
©AMNH/ J. Steffey

Siberia was an exceedingly difficult place to access because of its harsh climate, complicated travel logistics, and oppressive political atmosphere. Waldemar Jochelson and Waldemar Bogoras, Russian revolutionaries who had become experts in the Siberian cultures while living there in political exile, led the Siberian expedition. Jochelson and Bogoras were accompanied into the field by their wives, Dina Brodsky and Sofia Bogoras, who also made great contributions to the Expedition’s efforts. These ethnologists in exile were joined in the field by Berthold Laufer, a German scholar of Asian languages.

Travel with Reindeer Koryaks
Mr. and Mrs. Jochelson travel with Reindeer Koryaks, circa 1901.Image #4155.

As part of an effort to record the daily life of indigenous peoples during this period, the Jochelson and Bogoras teams collected both utilitarian items and ritual artifacts from peoples including the Chukchi, Even, Maritime Koryak, Yupik, Yukaghir, northern Siberia (Chukotka and Kamchatka); Jochelson also worked among the Sakha [Yakut] further west. Laufer worked on Sakhalin Island (Nivkhi [Gilyak], Evenk [Tungus], Ainu), as well as in the Amur River Region (Nanai [Goldi] and Evenk). Many of the Siberian groups were pastoral nomads; their primary source of subsistence was derived from reindeer herding, fishing, or hunting sea mammals, depending on their geographical location. The material culture of these many different peoples was shaped by the natural resources on which they depended.

Koryak girl
Koryak girl fishing through ice, circa 1900. Image #4126.
Tungus people with reindeer
Tungus people with reindeer.Image #11032.

Combined with photographs, accounts of social and religious practices, and wax-cylinder recordings of folktales and oral literature, this collection constructs a rich microcosm of northeastern Siberian life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yakut kumiss ceremony, 1902, in Sakhu Republic, northeastern Siberia
Yakut Kumiss Festival, circa 1902.Image #1796.
Red-brown Kumiss goblet with pedestal base and horizontal geometric designs and metallic strips
Kumiss goblet from AMNH Anthropology collection.Catalog number 70/8622.

By the late 19th century, disease epidemics and the depletion of wildlife had taken a toll on the Siberian populations and their way of life. Difficulties faced by the indigenous people intensified under late Imperial Russian and subsequent Soviet rule, when the practice of shamanism was prohibited and complete assimilation was encouraged. The rich native cultures represented by this material were at risk of disappearing completely.

Koryak shaman
Koryak shaman woman with drum. Image #4120.

Fortunately these indigenous peoples did not vanish, and efforts at cultural revival began at the very end of the Soviet period. Today, the Siberian collections at the Museum are an important resource to the descendants of these same peoples as they seek to educate future generations about the traditional culture and practices of their people.
In an effort to preserve these collections and make them more accessible for study, the current project provides conservation treatment and improved housing to artifacts in critical need of care.

Treating objects
Conservator Gabrielle Tieu treating a Koryak funeral coat.

Many of these pieces are requested for study by Siberian scholars and craftsmen, whose visits in turn offer conservators a valuable opportunity to consult with native Siberians.

Examining objects
Viewing objects with visiting Sakha researchers Zinaida Ivanova (right), Evgeniya Nikolaevna (center) and Maxim Vladimirovich (left).
©AMNH/ J. Pace

Coupled with close examination and analysis of technical aspects of the artifacts, such as fur identification, these consultations further the understanding and appreciation of traditional and contemporary material use and technologies. As the conservation team delves deeper into their research, the results of their work will be shared with the public in order to improve access to this collection.

Funding for the project is provided in part by:

and the Stockman Family Foundation Trust.