19 April 2023
Siberian Ethnographic Museums: Indigenous Lives Exhibited
In his autobiographical novel The Chukchi Bible, Yuri Rytkheu tells the story of how his grandfather, Mletkin, a Chukchi shaman from the village of Uelen, in the Russian Far East, was put on display for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as Chicago World’s Fair), “tasked with presenting to the public” the “world’s yet uncivilized tribes in a setting as realistic as possible” (Rytkheu, p. 255). During the exposition, Mletkin, dressed in a shaman robe and equipped with a tambourine, was asked to perform a shamanic ritual – kamlanie – in front of a yaranga (a Chukchi hut). Rytkheu describes how his grandfather was struck by the arrogance of the ‘white’ organisers of the exhibition and its visitors who “held themselves apart from the rest of humanity, or at least from the part that was inhabiting the village, emphasizing their superiority to the Chukchi, the Eskimos, the Indians, Malaysians, Africans, Aleutians, and all those who tomorrow would be the subject of wonder, curiosity, or perhaps disdain, on the part of the fair’s visitors” (Rytkheu, p. 260).
At the turn of the 20th century, the performance of shamanic rituals for a white audience, similar to the one described by Rytkheu, was a common entertainment not only in North America, but also in the Russian Empire. A collection of glass plate negatives, digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Project (EAP016) includes evidence of similar colonial practices. For instance, in April 1910, the city theatre of Krasnoyarsk organised an ethnographic evening performance of a shamanic ritual, executed by the Khakass shaman Petr Sarlin. An ethnographic exhibition, including a Khakass yaranga, was installed in the theatre hall, and local photographer, Ludvig Vonago, took photographs of Sarlin dressed in shamanic gear (pictures 1 and 2).
Picture 1 The ethnographic evening at the Krasnoyarsk city theatre. Shaman. April 2, 1910. Photographer: Vonago. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)
Picture 2 Shaman.
In his novel, Rytkheu describes how during the exposition Mletkin was impregnated with feelings of humiliation and alienation as he stood “firmly beyond that invisible rope that separated the living exhibits of the World’s Fair from the rest of their fellow humanity” (Rytkheu, p. 263). Even though we do not have any written account of Sarlin’s experience of performing in front of the Krasnoyarsk audience, the likeness of his and Mletkin’s stories suggest that he might have also been aware of ‘the invisible rope’ separating him, a Khakass shaman on display, and the Russian spectators. In this blogpost, I suggest further exploring Rytkheu’s ‘rope’ metaphor through the BL’s collections of digitised photographs taken by Vonago and other photographers during the first 30 years of the 20th century.
Many images in EAP016 demonstrate that Siberian indigenous peoples were often depicted as museum exhibits rather than real people. The photographers focused on the ethnographic peculiarities and anthropological features of their models rather than on their psychological portraits. In pictures 3–7, we see the images of the cultural ‘others’ photographed from the side-, front-, and back-views.
Picture 3 A Khakass woman, Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva, 48 years old, in her winter coat. A full body picture, front-view. Seskin ulus, Askizskii region.
Picture 4 Ekaterina Ivanovna Mainagasheva.
Picture 5 A Kachinets Shaman, Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin, 60 years old, photographed in his shaman clothes holding a drum and thumper. Samrin ulus.
Picture 6 Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin.
Picture 7 Fedor Nikolaevich Samrin.
In Russian pre-revolutionary museums, such photographs were often used for ethnographic exhibitions alongside the various material objects of the indigenous cultures. For example, pictures 8 and 9, taken in the ethnographic museum of Krasnoyarsk, demonstrate how the exotic ‘curiosities’ – such as the traditional hunting and fishing tools, the cooking utensils and crockery, the wooden cradle, the religious objects as well as the mannequins dressed in the traditional clothes – were aimed at enlightening Siberia’s Russian population about ‘other’ dwellers of the region.
Picture 8 The Ethnographic Exhibition. The little exhibits are in the cupboards; the drum sets are at the top; the mannequins are along the walls. The Ethnographic Museum of Krasnoyarsk.
Picture 9 The Glass Cabinet with the Ostyak Objects. 1906-07. Photographer: A.Tugarinov. The Ethnographic Museum of Krasnoyarsk.
The photographs of Siberian ethnographic museums after the installation of the new Soviet regime, on the other hand, offer a new perspective on the indigenous population. The State sought to integrate indigenous people into the political system by means of sedentarisation, collectivisation, and education. Even though the new regime proclaimed that all Soviet nations were equal, the invisible rope between ‘backward’ and ‘civilized’ nations did not disappear (Gavrilova, p. 151). Moreover, the photographers continued to take pictures (see 10, 11) that exoticized anthropological and cultural features of the indigenous population.
Picture 10 Photographer: Man'yafov. Taim. Nganasan Savalov Abaku. 1938.
Picture 11 Photographer: A.V. Kharchevnikov. Taim. Detty Turdagin. 1938.
The post-revolutionary ethnographic exhibitions never ceased to exoticize the indigenous peoples, but the collections became additionally politicised with the state’s propaganda. A geographer researcher, Sofia Gavrilova writes that the Soviet ethnographic museums received specific protocols that required them to ‘build exhibitions with the encompassing theme that the new socialistic face of a krai [region] was a result of “the politics of the Communist Party and the Soviet state, the result of Lenin-Stalinist theory, and the program of solving the national question” (Gavrilova, p. 152). The new ethnographic exhibitions were supposed to show the process of Sovietization of the indigenous peoples of the USSR. The historian Francine Hirsch describes the new agenda of the ethnographic museum as follows:
The museumgoer did not simply travel through the museum and visit its peoples, either randomly or according to their level of cultural development […] Instead, he or she embarked on an “evolutionary” adventure through the stages on the Marxist historical timeline. Along the way, the museumgoer learned about the differences among feudal, capitalist-colonial, and Soviet social structures, economic practices, and cultures (Hirsch, p. 220).
Among the EAP016 images, we find evidence of the described transformation in the museum narratives through many new signs that interpretated the exhibits. In pictures 12 and 13, for example, we find the scene from the history of religions – that were banned in the USSR. The wax figure of a shaman is set next to the Orthodox priest’s vestment and Buddhist sculptures which simultaneously demonstrate the relics of the past and the enemies of the Soviet ideology. Hirsch notes that after becoming acquainted with “kulaks, mullahs, and other class enemies in the museum, the museumgoer would then be able to identify them through their clothing, culture, and practices—and participate in the campaign to eradicate them—outside of the museum’s walls” (Hirsch, p. 220). There was no place for a shaman, a priest, or Buddhist monk in the new Soviet world.
Picture 12 Photographer: N. V. Fedorov
Picture 13 The Ethnographic Exposition in the Museum. 1939. Photographer: Ivan Baluev.
The ethnographic museums created new narratives about the evolution of the indigenous peoples. Picture 14 shows the mobile hut, known as a balok, that was used for nomadic schools in the northern parts of Siberia. The museums also told the stories of the new Soviet heroes who came from indigenous backgrounds and became loyal citizens of the USSSR. In picture 15, for example, we find portraits of the Siberian Communists (next to the portrait of Stalin) who contributed to the ultimate goal of building communism. The material objects of the northern indigenous cultures in this exhibition seemingly indicated their rapid transformation from a ‘primitive’ to a ‘civilized’ way of life. Additionally, the exhibitions provided detailed information about the economic achievements of Soviet Siberia. Pictures 16 and 17, for instance, inform us of the significant developments in the hunting and fishing industries.
Picture 14 The Exposition ‘Balok’. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.
Picture 15 The Exposition. 1938. Photographer: Baluev.
Picture 16 The Museum Exposition. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.
Picture 17 The Exposition ‘Our Old North’: Fish Industry. 1936. Photographer: S. Malob.
The process of industrial evolution in Siberia is evident from picture 18: the yaranga with the sign ‘The Old North’. Thanks to the help of the ‘developed’ Russian nation, the northern population were moved out from their ‘primitive’ huts into the new Soviet types of accommodation.
I’d like to finish this post with another reference to Rytkheu’s novel where he describes his family yaranga in the centre of Uelen:
This yaranga survived to my own childhood. In the beginning of the 1950s, when my tribesmen were being moved into new wooden housing, it was pulled down, along with the other ancient shacks not fit to shelter a Soviet citizen of those enlightened times. The last time I saw my family yaranga, or rather its likeness, was in the municipal museum of Nome, Alaska, during my first visit to the United States in 1978. The photographer had shot a panoramic view of Uelen, with our family home at the forefront of the composition. I made a copy of the photograph and it is now stored in my archives (Rytkheu, p. 129).
It is striking that Rytkheu’s experience suggests that the ethnographic museum – stager of exotic curiosities and propaganda ¬– became the last place he could see artefacts of his heritage. Whilst these images are specific products of colonial attitudes towards indigenous peoples, they remain available records of their material culture. One can hope that the BL’s digitised collection of photographs, being open access, can help Siberians and us to explore and reflect upon this history.
Picture 18 The Exposition ‘The Old North’. 1939. Photographer: Baluev.
Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’
References and further reading:
Yuri Rytkheu, Poslednii shaman (St Petersburg, 2004) YF.2004.a.26238 (English translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, The Chukchi Bible (New York, 2011)
V. M. Iaroshevskoĭ, I. V. Kuklinskiĭ, L. Iu. Vonago — fotograf na vyezd: Krasnoiarsk i ego okrestnosti v fotografiiakh Liudviga Vonago, ed. by A. B. Ippolitova (Krasnoiarsk, 2020).
Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, N.Y, 2005) YC.2005.a.7999
Roland Cvetkovski, ‘Empire Complex: Arrangements in the Russian Ethnographic Museum, 1910’, in An Empire of Others: Creating Ethnographic Knowledge in Imperial Russia and
the USSR, ed. by Roland Cvetkovski and Alexis Alexis (Budapest, 2014), pp. 211–251 YD.2014.a.1342.
Sofia Gavrilova, Russia’s Regional Museums Representing and Misrepresenting Knowledge About Nature History, and Society (Abingdon, 2022) ELD.DS.709608;
Sofia Gavrilova, ‘Producing the “Others”: The Development of Kraevedenie in Chukotka’, Études Inuit Studies, 45: 1/2 (2021) 147–170.