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John Webber Collection, Bern Historical Museum


John Webber (Johann Wäber, 1751-1792) accompanied James Cook on his Third Voyage around the world as the expedition’s artist.  After his return to Europe, he moved back to his hometown Bern, Switzerland.1  In 1791, he donated a collection of items gathered during the voyage to the local public library.2  Founded in the 16th century, this library already had a large collection of objects, mostly historic and natural history specimens.  Today the library is known as the Burgerbibliothek, and is an archive of manuscripts and other documents.  The collections of objects have become the founding core of several Bernese museums, including the Bern Historical Museum, which holds the ethnographic collections, including that of John Webber.


Several lists and inventories of Webber’s collection exist.  The first one is a shipping list of the material sent from London to Berne.3  In 1791 an inventory list was compiled at the Burgerbibliothek.  An additional list was started in 1827 by the first curator of the collections of the library, Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach (1748-1830).  And there is also the inventory book of the Bern Historical Museum.  Additionally, a group of watercolours by Bernese artist Otto Bay exists, executed probably around 1897 or 1898.  These show parts of the collections from Oceania.  A minor source of information are the descriptions and drawings by early visitors to the collections, such as the curator of archaeological collections at the Riksmuseet (National Museum) in Stockholm, Hjalmar Stolpe (1841-1905), who documented parts of the Webber collection in 1881.  Over time, some of the Webber material left the collection under unknown circumstances, other pieces were misattributed and misplaced.  


The aim of this article is to shed some light on what has happened and, in some cases, suggest corrections.


An unstructured collection


Upon donation of the collection in 1791, all objects were listed in the donation book of the library (pages 269-70).  The entry starts with John Webber’s name, and a short explanation of who he was, “citizen of Bern, painter in London, and travel companion of James Cook on his voyage around the world”.  The list includes an object name for each entry, sometimes a few clarifying words, and a place of origin.  There are 97 objects in the list, with some objects grouped together under one entry.  One such entry is “Bow and arrows, from Prince William Sound”.  Apart from that, no images or further information can be found.  Each entry simply lists all of the objects, without following any structure.


A second list was compiled in 1803, when a Museum for Natural History was founded in Bern.4  The entries are almost identical to the first.  In a third list, compiled in 1827, the entries follow a regional structure, and some objects seem to have gone missing, been given away, or deaccessioned.5 


No explanation for the missing entries has yet been found. For example, of three Nuu­chah­nulth cloaks from the northwest coast of North America mentioned in the first and second lists, only two are left in the third list.  One cloak is described as being rotten (“verdorben”) and was probably discarded before 1827.  A Maori cloak, present in the first two lists, is absent in the third one.  


Figure 1.  “Al. 11. A weapon of war. Nootka Sound”.
Today, Inv. No. 1791.401.0009,
Stolpe Sketchbook No. XII
Statens museer för världskultur Archives, Ö 1:8


When in 1894 the Bern Historical Museum opened on Helvetiaplatz, the ethnographic collections were transferred there, and a new catalogue was written.  There was no clear structure to the catalogue, with individual objects listed under the names of ethnic groups, geographic regions, countries, and even continents.  This method was already in use when Stolpe visited in 1881, and documented parts of the Cook collection, drawing the objects, writing explanations, and noting the numbers in his sketchbooks.6 


Stolpe was very interested in ornaments and structures.  In preparation for his most important publication on ornamentation, he made drawings scaled at 1:1, and took rubbings.  From one of these items we can see that information written in French in some of the inventories was written by Wyttenbach.  Stolpe documented all information available (i.e. the original Webber descriptions in English, and those by Wyttenbach in French), adding in Swedish other details that he felt were important.


Figure 2.  Two objects from Hawaii, Sa. 5 and Sa. 6.
Today, Inv. 1791.531.0004 and 1791.531.0006
Drawing from the Stolpe Archives, Statens museer för världskultur


Structuring the collection


When the public library decided upon installing a museum within their building, a structure was given to the collections.  This structure was used as the basis for another system combining the year of acquisition, a 3-digit regional code and a 4-digit running number.  For example, the Nuu-chah­nulth cloak is now identified by the code 1791.503.0023, and the Maori cloak is 1791.503.0024.


At some point during the first half of the 20th century they had both been incorrectly described as having a Tongan origin.  Karl Henking described them as “Maori” in his 1957 monograph.7  Adrienne Kaeppler established the current attributions to the Nuu-chah-nulth and Maori respectively in 1978.8  Both objects still carry the regional code “503” as part of their inventory numbers; that code is given to objects from New Zealand.  A recent study took a closer look at the archival material related to the cloaks, to verify Kaeppler’s correction by analysing the materials and techniques used in making the cloaks.9


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. 


Martin Schultz

Email: martin.schultz@varldskulturmuseerna.se

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. 

Burgerbibliothek, Bern

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).

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