Three parkas from Alaska
Three gut skin parkas from Alaska found their way into the collections in Bern during the 18th and 19th centuries, coming from the Webber, Schoch, and Bischoff collections.10 The Webber piece has very likely been misplaced over time. The 1791 list mentions a “garment made of guts of whales, from Onalaska”. The 1827 inventory lists the same piece on page 12 as a “waterproof coat made of whale guts, from Onalaska. Worn by the inhabitants when they go fishing in their little boats, Baidarchen”.11 When researching the Webber collection after it was donated, Wyttenbach gathered information from published sources available at the library. His notes are bound into one volume with the 1827 inventory and give a description of gut skin parkas used in Alaska. Though it is probably not the specimen donated by Webber, it seems very likely that Wyttenbach chose to excerpt a description that comes close to it. The parka is number 56 in his list of the Webber collection, and is described as “A dress made of the guts of whale. Is made of whale guts, commonly found in Prince William Sound. The inhabitants use them in their canoes, they cover their heads with them and gird their loins around the whole they sit in. This way no water can enter the canoe, so that they sit in them dry and warm”.12
This description indicates that the parka in question is one with a hood. Henke lists the parka as number 71 in his 1957 monograph. He describes it as consisting of nine rows of gut skin for the body. Only two of the three gut skin parkas from Alaska have a hood. One of them has the inventory number “Al 19” written on it, and can therefore be attributed to the Bischoff collection. The remaining two have obviously been misplaced in more recent years. After Henking published his article, the storage rooms of the museum were transferred several times, and parts of the collections were stored in remote corners of the museum. This is, for example, true for the gut skin parkas. They were considered lost when Adrienne Kaeppler published the Webber collections in 1978, and only found again, unnumbered, two years later. At that time the better-looking object (but without a hood) was identified as the Webber parka, and the one in very bad condition (but with a hood) as the Schoch parka. This misidentification was corrected only in 2017.
A band of feathers from Tahiti
Henking lists a band with feathers of the tropic bird from Tahiti as number 26 in his 1957 publication.13 This band shows up as the last entry in the 1791 list of the Webber Collection. The list mentions the feathers as being from the “oiseau tropique”, the tropic bird. Henking in his 1957 publication identified them as phaeton phoenicurus (now Phaethon rubricauda), the red-tailed tropic bird, probably because of the long red feathers of that band. However, the band also shows long blue feathers and shorter yellow ones. The full entry in the 1791 list reads “1 wreath of the feathers of the tropic bird belonging to a head decoration, from Otaheiti”.14
A headdress from Tahiti is also mentioned in the 1791 list. Unfortunately, it has no further description. Since the collection contains only one such object, we can be quite certain that it is a mask for a Tahitian mourner’s costume (heva tupau).15 This mask consists of three pieces of mother of pearl shell and one piece of tortoise shell, with a band of feathers of the tropic bird running around the upper part of the piece. One of the Otto Bay watercolours shows that same mask, but without the feathers. And, upon looking at the back of the masking, it is quite obvious that the cordage used is likely to have been a European hemp cord. It differs from the material used to construct the mask. It seems very likely that the feathers have been added to the mask at the museum. It also seems likely that a feather band from South America was found unnumbered, and subsequently given the number of the “missing” band of feathers of the tropic bird, probably interpreted as feathers of tropical birds. As Henking was not aware of the changes, they must have happened considerably earlier. The collection history of the feather band listed as 1791.536.0043 is currently uncertain. While the place of origin has been corrected to South America and the connection to Webber deleted (as there is no other description for any object from his collection coming even close), the mystery of its origin remains unsolved.
An ankle rattle from Tonga
A comparable problem exists with an object described as an ankle rattle from Tonga.16 This rattle cannot be found in any of the inventory lists, nor is it part of the Henking publication. It is depicted in one of the Otto Bay watercolours, though. Unfortunately, without any further information thus only proving it had been in the collections by then. The ankle rattle consists of a band made of plant fibres, to which are fastened seed pods (probably cascabela) opened at the bottom. These plants are endemic to Central and South America. The rattle might possibly come from northern Brazil or the Guianas. Early collections from there are existent in Bern, yet, as with the feather band, a connection still awaits to be established.
A male figure from Alaska
Another case was easier to solve, that of a little male figure attributed to the Nuu-chah-nulth.17 This 10 cm high and 4 cm wide figure of a sitting male cannot be found in any of the old inventory lists. However, it made its way into the list of objects attributed to the Webber collection. Henking published it as such in 1957, as part of an addendum to the objects with safe Webber connections. In an introductory sentence he explains that those objects do not have any of the original object tags, nor are they mentioned on any of the lists, but are still probably from that collection. The material is described as walrus ivory with abalone shell inlay for the eyes. Upon close examination the material was identified as being bone.
A human figure from Nootka Sound
The inventory begun in 1827 lists the Webber collection objects in ink. To these, later pencil entries were added. Page 14 lists the objects from the Northwest Coast. Number 62 is an ink entry that reads “little human figure in the dress of the inhabitants of Nootka Sound”. Below is a later pencil entry “62 b Do Do [ditto ditto]”. We cannot be sure about the object this entry refers to. There is only one object that fits the description, that of a sitting female wearing a gut skin parka. While we cannot be sure about an origin from Vancouver Island, we can be quite sure that this is the object the original list refers to. The bone figure is probably listed as number 72 of that same page, an idol from Puerto Rico, donated in the 1850s as part of a larger collection by British botanist Robert J. Shuttleworth (1810-1874), back than a resident of the city of Bern.18 It seems possible that it is a fragment of a Taino vomiting stick, made of manatee rib bone.
As mentioned before and shown in the case of the three Nuu-chah-nulth cloaks, a number of objects from the Webber collections are no longer part of the collections in Bern and lost without traces.
While no changes have been made to the original 1791 acquisition list of the public library, all other lists have undergone changes. Apart from additions, like the mentioned pencil entries in the 1827 inventory, other lists show crossed out entries. Only a full survey of the collections based on the original inventory, drawing on the later inventories to understand the changes, will finally bring to light what part of the collection is still in Bern and what is not. This investigation remains to be done.
Archival sources not mentioned elsewhere
Bernisches Historisches Museum
Verzeichniß einicher Merkwürdigkeiten auß dem Süd-Meer welche durch Hr. Weber auf seiner Reise mit dem Capt. Cook gesammelt und nach Engelland gebraucht worden.
Verzeichniß der von der im Jahre 1803 erfolgten Stiftung des Naturhistorischen Musäums auf die Bibliothek geschenkter Naturalien- und Kunstsachen.
Donationenbuch der Stadtbibliothek
1. The name of the capital city of Switzerland is spelt Bern in German, and Berne in French. There is no agreement on how the name is spelt in English.
2. Webber had previously donated to the library a copy of the official account of Cook’s Third Voyage, published in London in 1784: A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Undertaken in His Majesty's Ships the Resolution and the Discovery in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780. This work contained engravings basked on Webber’s paintings and drawings.
3. The list was published in Kaeppler, Adrienne (ed.). Cook Voyage Artifacts in Leningrad, Berne, and Florence Museums. Bishop Museum Press. 1978.
4. Verzeichniß der vor der im Jahre 1803 erfolgten Stiftung des Naturhistorischen Museums auf die Bibliothek geschenkten Naturalien und Kunstsachen [List of natural and artistic objects donated to the library before the foundation of the Natural History Museum in 1803]. Archive of the Archaeological Section, Bern Historical Museum.
5. Kataloge der Archlog. & ethn. Sammlung, Notizen Verzeichnis allen derjenigen Gegenstände und Merkwürdigkeiten welche in den unteren Sälen des Naturhistorischen Museums zu Bern aufbewahrt werden, Verfertigt von Hr. Studer, 1827 [Catalogue of the archlog. & ethn. collection, with notes of all objects and curiosities stored in the lower halls of the Natural History Museum in Bern, Compiled by Mr. Studer, 1827]. Archive of the Archaeological Section, Bern Historical Museum.
6. Categories included “Sioux”, “Alaska”, “New Zealand” and “North America”.
7. Henking, Karl. Die Südsee- und Alaskasammlung Johann Wäber Beschreibender Katalog [A Descriptive Catalogue of John Webber’s South Sea and Alaska collections]. Jahrbuch des Bernischen Historischen Museums. Vol. XXXV and XXXVI, pages 325-389 (1957).
8. Kaeppler. op. cit.
9. Schultz, Martin and Lyko, Anna-Maja. “ ‘Ein Mantel oder Kleidungsstück aus Nootka Sound’ – Zur Herkunft eines Zedernbastmantels von der dritten Reise des James Cook”. [“ ‘A coat or garment made of Nootka Sound’ – The origin of a cedar mantle from the third voyage of James Cook”] in Kunst und Kontext. 2018. No. 14. Pages 82-87.
10. Inventory numbers 1791.401.0001, 1838.401.0028, and 1859.401.0019, respectively.
11. The 1791 list mentions “1 Kleidung aus dem Eingeweide der Wallfische, aus Onalaska”., the 1827 inventory a “Wasserdichter Mantel aus Wallfisch Gedärmen verfertigt, von Onalascka. Wird von den Einwohnern angezogen wenn sie auf ihren kleinen Schiffen Baidarcken auf den Fischfang gehen”.
12. Ein Kleid von Eingeweiden des Walfischs gemacht. Ist aus Walfischdärmen gemacht, dergl. Man in Prinz Wilhelms Sound häufig hat. Die Einwohner bedienen sich derselben in ihren canots; sie bedecken den Kopf damit und binden die Schösse derselben um das Loch fest, in welchem sie sitzen. Auf diese Art kann kein Wasser in das Kanot eindringen, sie selbst sitzen trocken und warm”.
13. Inventory number Tah 43, 1791.536.0043.
14. “1 Gebinde Federn vom l’oiseau Tropique, gehörend zu einem Kopfputz, aus Otaheiti”.
15. Inventory number 1793.536.0023.
16. Inventory number 1791.516.0023.
17. Inventory number 1791.401.0012.
18. The reconstruction of the collection history was possible thanks to the help of Prof. Steven Hooper, director of the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of Norwich. He identified the object as being possibly from the Caribbean.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 16, volume 42, number 2 (2019).