Messages from the Museum Directors

Illinois State Museum

During a trip to St. Petersburg in the spring of 1993, as part of a cooperative agreement with the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, I had the special privilege of visiting the Russian Museum of Ethnography with colleagues Drs. Bonnie Styles and Jeffrey Saunders. St. Petersburg, the home of the Czars, is replete with cultural treasures, but none was more interesting for one trained in anthropology than the ethnographic museum. When rereading the diary I kept during my sojourn to this island city on the Bay of Finland, I noted not only that our tour was eminently informative, but that I found myself, as a museum director, somewhat envious of the incomparable quality of the Russian Museum of Ethnography's collections.

One of the collections that attracted our interest was a wealth of artifacts included in an exhibit on the peoples of Siberia. The material objects--clothing, weapons, utensils, and other domestic artifacts--along with a rich archive of historic photographs captured the very essence of the lifeways of these Northern peoples. Supplementing this plethora of Siberian cultural treasures was a large number of objects from the domain of the mysterious yet omnipresent religious practitioner, the Siberian shaman. When we expressed an interest in this collection, we learned that a traveling exhibit could be arranged from the Museum's extensive holdings from Siberia.

The shamanism theme was especially relevant since during this period one of our party, Dr. Styles, was working with our museum staff members to plan the content of the new exhibits for the Dickson Mounds Museum. In our attempts to portray the cosmological beliefs of the Mississippian Indians in the multimedia presentation "Reflections on Three Worlds," we found that many of the same broad themes of an Upper World, This World, and a Lower World, were central to the world view of the Siberian groups, especially as manifested in the paraphernalia and symbolic elements of the shaman. To the anthropologist, it is not unexpected that many of these cosmological belief systems are widespread among geographically separated ethnic and folk groups. Anthropologists from the early-twentieth-century "School of Diffusionists" held that the ideas for everything from pyramids to belief systems were invented and diffused from single geographic locations. Modern research methods have challenged those early concepts of universal diffusion by showing that similar ideas have been derived by human populations in many parts of the world as adaptive responses to similar circumstances.

The name for the Siberian exhibit, Journey to Other Worlds, was the brainchild of Dr. Bonnie Styles, the chief curator for this exhibit who was, no doubt, influenced by her work with "Reflections on Three Worlds." The purpose of bringing Journey to Other Worlds to the Illinois State Museum and its subsequent venues in the United States is not to suggest that there are direct parallels between the Siberian groups and American Indian cultures, but rather to expose visitors to the rich cultural traditions that evolved in the harsh environments of the Siberian North. Nevertheless, it does give the viewer an opportunity to compare and contrast the similarities and differences in the lifeways and belief systems of Siberian and Native American ethnic groups. After all, that is what anthropology is all about.

It is a privilege to be able to bring this exhibit to the United States, and I extend my sincere thanks to Dr. Igor Dubov, Director of the Russian Museum of Ethnography, and his staff. Without their cooperation and attention to detail this cultural exchange would not have been possible. In a broader sense, I hope this traveling exhibit will foster an enhanced understanding in the United States of the diversity and richness of the cultural traditions of the Russian Federation this case for the vast region known as the Siberian North.

R. Bruce McMillan, Ph.D.
Museum Director
Illinois State Museum
August 1997

Russian Museum of Ethnography

Dear friends and colleagues, for the first time in the United States, the Russian Museum of Ethnography (St. Petersburg) shows the most important part of its unique Siberian collection. One hundred years ago, according to the Supreme Decree by Emperor Nicholas II, the Imperial Russian Museum was established in St. Petersburg to honor the memory of Emperor Alexander III. Since then, thanks to the tireless activity of several generations of scientists, politicians, statesmen, religious figures, connoisseurs, and lovers of folk culture, many of them Russian citizens, this Museum became a real treasury of arts, everyday life, and culture of Russia.

Photograph 1. The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg

The national ethnographic museum grew out of the heart of the Imperial Russian Museum and became the independent state collection at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It survived revolutions and wars, and now there is no equivalent museum in Russia, Europe, or in the rest of the world.

Our Museum has collections from the cultures of more than 150 indigenous peoples of Europe and Asia, and includes 500,000 artifacts. In addition to a great number of unique photographs, the Museum curates manuscripts, maps, and drawings that are studied and exhibited. In all, our collections include about one million objects today.

The Museum has at its disposal collections that are valuable historical resources. They enable researchers to study the economy of various groups, different crafts, tools, means of conveyance, clothes and decorations, types of dwellings, utensils, attributes of folk knowledge and beliefs, rites and customs, holidays and amusements, child rearing, folk sports, and so on.

Collections of objects made of precious metals (gold and silver) and stones include weapons, festive and ritual dishes, jewelry, and amulets of great value. Collections of carpets, fur clothing, and musical instruments are also very important and interesting.

Today we would like to invite you, as our guests, to have a journey to the worlds of the universe together with Siberian shamans. You will become familiar with the unique culture created by the indigenous peoples of the Siberian region during the long history of its development. Objects that illustrate traditional ways of hunting wild reindeer, deer-breeding, clothes and footwear, dwellings, child rearing, and traditional beliefs and shamanism, are most interesting. Among them are unique, authentic artifacts such as ritual masks; clothes and accoutrements of shamans; representations of the "shaman's journey to Heaven"; shaman's patron spirits and helper spirits; a bow, an arrow, and other devices for hunting; footwear of archaic styles; toys; and a device for making fire. Most of the objects on display date to the late nineteenth or the first quarter of the twentieth centuries. They are a small part of the Museum collection on the ethnography of the peoples of Siberia and the Far East, which consists of about 50,000 objects.

The formation of the Siberian collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography began 100 years ago, and it continues today. The valuable contributions were made by the prominent Russian scientistsarchaeologists, ethnographers, anthropologists. Rudenko and A. Makarenko with the active help of public figures, intellectuals, officials, and the native population of Siberia. And today, thanks to these people, we can become familiar with these invaluable treasures.

It is necessary to express our thanks to our curators and restorerswithout their efforts this exhibition could not take place. We are also very much obliged to our colleagues from the Illinois State Museum and their director, Dr. R. Bruce McMillan. I hope that the exhibition Journey to Other Worlds: Siberian Collections from the Russian Museum of Ethnography will be interesting for specialists and the general public and that our joint work will be appreciated at its true value.

Dr. Igor Dubov
Professor, Director
Russian Museum of Ethnography
St. Petersburg, Russia
April 1997

Foreword| Intro| Hunters| Shamans| People| Healing| Readings| Objects