Bank aids Britain's Native American collection

November 09, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

The British Museum will create a permanent North American Gallery for its unique Native American collections with a $1.6 million grant from the Chase Manhattan Bank, the largest single corporate gift in the 241-history of the museum.

In announcing the grant yesterday, Thomas Labrecque, chairman of the American bank, said "the sponsorship continues the bank's tradition of supporting the communities in which we do business and demonstrates our high regard for London and the United Kingdom."

"Nothing could be happier for us than to announce this munificent gift," said Claus Moser, head of the museum's development trust.

Called the finest of their kind in the world by David Attenborough, the distinguished wildlife filmmaker who is a museum director, the North American collections have been crammed into the Museum of Mankind at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly.

Only a few of the 20,000 ethnological and archaeological artifacts have ever been on view at any one time.

The collections are small compared to those at the Smithsonian Institution, which has "millions" of objects, in the words of Jonathan King, the head of the British museum's ethnography department.

"They have, however, an unprecedented historical depth," Mr. King said, during a press conference at the museum.

The museum's collections reflect the preeminence of British explorers when the museum was founded in the 18th century, Mr. Attenborough said.

The British Museum is 93 years older than the Smithsonian, which was founded in 1846. It is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions: 6.2 million visitors came last year, half from overseas.

The North American collection, Mr. King said, boasts unique artifacts such as the oldest object made by a "named" Native American, a spoon carved in 1702 from the breastbone of the now extinct Great Auk by a chief called "Papanau."

Papanau gave the spoon in gratitude to John Winthrop, of Massachusetts, who cured the gangrenous legs of Papanau's wife by bathing them in a balsamic liquid.

Mr. King showed a self-portrait of "Josiah Frances," Hidlis Hadjo, a leader of the Creek Nation, who sided with Britain in the War of 1812.

He came to England to plead his people's case and when he returned to the United States in 1818 he was hanged by Andrew Jackson, who went on to become the seventh president of the United States.

The museum is sensitive to concerns about human remains and ritual artifacts, which have aroused controversy for museums in the United States.

A prepared statement said the museum has "no collection of physical anthropology and no excavated scientific skeletal material."

Ritual objects "are treated with full and appropriate respect." But a Dakota buckskin war shirt displayed at the press conference was labeled as being decorated with weasel tails and beadwork.

The long fringe of human hair was left unmentioned.

The new gallery will bring the North American collections back to the museum's main Bloomsbury buildings, where they will occupy space vacated by the British Library, which is moving to controversial new quarters now being constructed painfully slowly at nearby King's Cross.

"We feel very strongly that all the cultures of the world should be seen together in one place," said Robert Anderson, director of the museum.

The new gallery will open in 1997 and represents the beginning of the museum's "transformation" leading to a 250th anniversary celebration.

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