Return of Grave Goods to the Chugach Alaska Corporation

Ethnologisches Museum

On 16 May 2018, the Ethnologisches Museum formally returned to the Chugach Alaska Corporation nine funerary objects that had been in its collection since the 1880s.

The handover is an important step on the way to deepening the museum’s collaborative projects with indigenous groups from the Chugach region in southwestern Alaska. The projects were initiated in 2015 and are being actively expanded.

The restitutions are of grave goods made of wood – such as masks or fragments of masks, figures and staffs – which Johan Adrian Jacobsen brought to Berlin in the 1880s from a collecting expedition commissioned by Berlin’s Königlichem Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Museum of Ethnology – the precursor of today’s Ethnologisches Museum).

Based on the evidence recently assessed on their provenance, everything points to the fact that the objects were unearthed from a plundered grave. Upon knowing this, the Board of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), the body overseeing the Ethnologisches Museum and the entire Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), made the decision to return the objects in December 2017, after consulting with the Chugach Alaska Corporation. After their return to Alaska, the objects will be handed over to the native communities there.

In a statement, SPK President Hermann Parzinger said: ‘The objects were taken from graves without the consent of the native people and thus unlawfully. They therefore have no place in our museums. I am particularly pleased that this restitution has not marked the termination of our collaboration, but, on the contrary, is a sign that we will be intensifying the cultural exchange with the Chugach Alaska Corporation as part of our ongoing collaborative project with them.’

John Johnson, Vice President of the Alaska Chugach Corporation, announced: ‘The Chugach look forward to working with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the future, in a partnership that will lead to various forms of cultural exchange. I am proud and very grateful for all the efforts that made this dream come true.’

Speakers at the official handover were:

  • Hermann Parzinger, President of the SPK
  • John Johnson, Vice President, Alaska Chugach Corporation
  • Christina Haak, Deputy Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Lars-Christian Koch, Director of the Collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the Humboldt Forum
  • Monika Zessnik, Kuratorin der Sammlung Nordamerika, Ethnologisches Museum