In 2001, the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at Wichita States University
organized an expedition into the Asmat region to collect the art for the museum's
Asmat expert and explorer Patti Seery, the museum’s former director, Jerry Martin,
along with a crew of Indonesian and Asmat people traveled the jungles and swamps for
six weeks to purchase and research the traditional and ceremonial art of the area.
They left the region with one of the largest and most important collections of Asmat
art now found in the United States.
Our deep gratitude goes to Paula and Barry Downing, who during a visit to Asmat in
1998 saw the wonderful beauty of their art and culture and agreed to fund the expedition.
Our gratitude also goes to Mr. Peter Bakwin, of Chicago Illinois for his generous
donation of his collection of over 100 important Asmat objects.
About the Asmat
In 2001, the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at Wichita State University had
the great fortune of being able to send an expedition into the Asmat region to collect
the art for the museum's collection.
The Asmat people live on the western half of the Island of New Guinea. This area,
called Papua, is the largest and least developed of all of Indonesia's 27 provinces.
Dense forest and mangrove swamp cover 85% of its area and parts of the interior remain
unexplored. Approximately 65,000 Asmat inhabit a vast landscape of Mangrove swamp,
meandering rivers, and a large expanse of mud, which extends for more than 175 miles
along the western coast of Papua.
The Asmat still live a very complex ceremonial life controlled by the need to maintain
harmony between the world of the living and the spirit world of the dead. During these
ceremonies a large variety of carvings and masks are used, each having their own function
and meaning. These ceremonial objects have long been famous because of their beautiful
intricate carving and often very large scale. Asmat art is also very rare. In the
past the Asmat were shielded from external influences by the harshness of their environment
and their fierce war-like reputation. Then in the 1950's missionaries and the Indonesian
Government began colonizing the area. The Asmat traditions of headhunting and cannibalism
ended in the 1970's, but very tight and restrictive controls over the Asmat remained
Few people were allowed to visit the area and very little Asmat art was collected
for collectors and museums. In 2001, the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at
Wichita State University had the great fortune of being able to send an expedition
into the Asmat region to collect the art for the museum's collection. Paula and Barry
Downing, who during a visit in1998 saw and understood the wonderful beauty of Asmat
art and culture, underwrote the expedition. The Director of the Holmes Museum, Jerry
Martin and an Asmat expert, Patti Seery, with a crew of eight Indonesian and Asmat
people traveled the jungles and swamps for six weeks to purchase and research the
traditional and ceremonial art of the area. They left the region with one of the largest
and most important collections of Asmat art now found in the United States. The only
other large Asmat collection found in the United State that was collected from the
field by trained anthropological museum personnel is the Michael Rockefeller collection
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The Ulrich Museum of Art and the Holmes Museum of Anthropology are very proud to present
for the first time to the public a selection of objects from the Barry and Paula Downing
collection of Asmat art. The exhibition will be held simultaneously at both museums
beginning on April 29, 2004 Spirit Journeys: the Art of the Asmat, the exhibition
at the Ulrich Museum will emphasize the artistic aspects of Asmat art. Featuring a
number of "Bis" ancestor poles" towering 20 feet in the air,"Wuramon" Soul Ships,
life sized body masks, drums and a host of other ceremonial objects. Spirit Journeys:
Ritual and Ceremony of the Asmat, the exhibition at the Holmes Museum, will feature
a replica of a men's ceremonial house with Asmat dancers, drummers and spirit masks
celebrating a traditional "Doroe" or "Farewell to the Spirits of the Dead" ceremony.
About the expedition
In the summer of 2001, Wichita State University became the first university in over
forty years to mount an extensive expedition to collect traditional art in the isolated
Asmat area of Southwestern New Guinea. The Asmat area comprises a remote, harsh environment
of mangrove swamps, jungle, mud and meandering river systems that provide the only
access to the villages. After their initial journey to Asmat, Paula and Barry Downing
made the decision to underwrite a Wichita State Asmat Expedition. Patti Seery, an
expert in Asmat art and culture, organized and led the expedition. Jerry Martin, Director
of the L. D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology, joined the expedition representing the
university. Over 950 diverse cultural objects were collected and documented thus forming
the basis of the Downing Collection of Asmat Art. WSU now possesses one of only three
significant collections of Asmat art found in the United States. The purpose of this
expedition was to gather a collection of Asmat objects that can be used by scholars
to learn about Asmat art and culture. Creating a research collection involves gathering
objects that have been used by the people and recording the items cultural context.
During the past 75 years museums have rarely undertaken the difficulties and cost
of acquiring large ethnographic collections that can provide the basis for academic
research, comparative studies and publications. The following photographs will illustrate
the expedition and explain the different steps in the process of museum field collecting.
These photographs were taken by Jerry Martin and Patti Seery during the expedition.
Planning and selecting the expedition crew
Before a museum expedition can take place, the people organizing the expedition need
to research the culture and determine what type of items will be collected for the
museum and which areas will be visited during the expedition. Once this has been accomplished,
the next step is to plan and implement the complex logistics for the trip based upon
the cultural regions selected and the amount of time allotted. Since there are 12
local dialects and almost no one speaks English in the Asmat region, the expedition
needed multiple interpreters to translate from the various dialects to the national
language of Bahasa Indonesian and English. During this stage, it is also necessary
to choose who will represent the museum's interests when selecting the items for the
collection and establish how the items will be sent safely from Asmat to WSU.
In the Downing Expedition, Patti Seery was the expedition leader, co-curator, logistics
organizer and interpreter. Her expertise in West New Guinea Island cultures and knowledge
of the area and language enabled the team to select a large number of culturally important
items that had been used in rituals or in everyday life and helped ensure the success
of the expedition. Jerry Martin, Director of the Holmes Museum of Anthropology at
Wichita State University, was the co-curator in charge of actual purchasing and training
any field personnel to record adequate information about the items.
Ronny Fordatkosu, a native Indonesian from Tanimbar Island, managed the bookkeeping,
helped with logistics, acted as interpreter and recorded traditional music. Ronny
was responsible for packing and shipping the objects from Asmat to Wichita. Other
important members of the expedition included two men to interpret the local dialects
into Indonesian, two boatmen and their respective assistants and a cook.
To navigate the myriad of rivers that traverse the Asmat region, the expedition used
one speedboat and two hollowed-out wooden longboats with 40 HP outboard motors. Other
equipment that was required for the trip included fuel and spare parts for the boats,
tents, rations of drinking water, tobacco for gifts and non-perishable food to supplement
the local staple diet of sago and first aid supplies.
Field collecting ethnographic objects
Once in the Asmat region, the expedition members needed to build rapport and create
mutual respect within the different villages they visited. By making their intentions
clear to the local people before collecting any items for the museum, expedition member
were able to establish good relations with them. The expedition maintained rapport
with the Asmat by approaching the toku adat or ceremonial leaders first, explaining
their motives for being there, offering tobacco, sharing food in their ceremonial
houses and establishing a fair price for the items they wanted to buy.
To maintain harmony and avoid creating any jealousy, the expedition members were very
careful to select objects from as many different individuals as possible. The goal
of the Downing expedition was to collect items that would reflect who the Asmat are
and how they live, so they selected a wide range of objects actually used in ceremonial
rituals and daily life. When selecting objects, the expedition members gave priority
to items that were made in the traditional way and had traditional motifs. Rarely,
they would purchase an object made for sale to highlight the differences between traditional
and tourist objects.
Recording cultural information
After selecting an item, the researchers needed to record where it was collected,
who was the maker or owner, when and where it was made and what materials were used.
Other important information included how the object was used, and any special cultural
or ceremonial meaning associated with the object. Recording this information allows
future researchers to recreate the cultural context of the object and learn about
the people who made it. It is important to note that museums must follow a code of
ethics when collecting. Doing so helps to avoid any complications with the local people,
maintains mutual respect and helps establish the integrity of the collection. For
example, the WSU Asmat Expedition made the decision not to collect any ancestor skulls
or human bones out of respect for the Asmat and to comply with import/export restrictions.
Transporting the collection
Many of the items were collected in remote villages far from the main base of the
expedition and involved extraordinary planning to transport them safely by longboat
back to Agats, the regional capital. Communication between the different longboats
of the expedition was non-existent once they separated from the main expedition team.
Fraught with worry about the safety of small wooden longboats at sea, enormous tides
and frequent breakdowns made each time a longboat reappeared a cause for celebration.
Packing and keeping the objects dry was especially difficult in the case of the extremely
large and spiritually charged ritual objects like the 33 foot long soul ship or wuramon.
Special taboos associated with their removal from the villages needed to be honored
and bis poles could never be transported at night. Offerings were always made to the
spirits at the mouth of rivers to ensure their safe passage. Once back in Agats all
the items were temporarily stored, tags were rechecked and rudimentary packing materials
were used to wrap the most fragile items. There was no safe and convenient way to
ship the goods out of Asmat to a place where they could be properly packed and fumigated.
The crew of a small inter-island sail boat was chosen to carry the collection without
the aid of modern navigation or any radio equipment to a major port on the island
of Java three weeks away by sea. Once the ship arrived, legal permission from the
authorities to unload and then export the goods outside the country became a bureaucratic
nightmare handled adroitly by Ronny. In Java, the 950 items of the Downing Collection
were properly insured and then loaded into 2 containers for their voyage to Wichita
State University. The collection left Asmat in July and arrived in Wichita, Kansas
in October of 2001.
Curating the collection
The conclusion of any field collecting expedition ends when the objects arrive at
the museum. Then, the time-consuming curation process begins. This involves cleaning,
preservation and conservation work, as well as cataloging the items. Since the items
in the Downing Collection had been wrapped and in-transit for three months, the preservation
process needed to start as soon as possible. Because most Asmat objects are made of
wood, natural pigments and plant fibers they need to be checked for insect infestation
and mold. Each object was kept in a plastic bag until it could be processed so contamination
from one object could not be transferred to another. Once an object was cleaned and
treated, condition reports, treatment forms and catalog sheets were completed. The
object was also photographed. Museum personnel and students have been busy with the
Downing collection since its arrival in October 2001. After almost three years of
hard work, a portion of the Downing Collection of Asmat Art was ready to be put on
exhibition. The nearly six year process of cleaning and cataloging the entire collection
was finished in July of 2007.