Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Museum at the End of the World: Encounters in the Russian Far East

"The Museum at the End of the World: Encounters in the Russian Far East" is a difficult book to categorise. It is not ethnography, yet the authors are self-identified ethnographers and the descriptions and prose are clearly in an ethnographic style. It is not a history of museums and museum expeditions in far-eastern Russia, but it includes some wonderful historical anecdotes on the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) Jesup Expedition, conducted at the turn of the twentieth century. It is not a survey of museums in the Russian Far East, but it does provide valuable descriptions of regional museums located in Providenia, Anadyr, Magadan, Khabarovsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Esso, and Palana. It is an academic anthropological travel book, and this contradiction between the scholarly and popular genres produces both the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

Alexia Bloch was a junior anthropologist, having then just finished her dissertation based on extensive fieldwork in central Siberia. She was working at the AMNH as a postdoctoral fellow when the trip was made in 1998. Laurel Kendall is a senior anthropologist, curator of the Asian section in the AMNH anthropology department, with decades of experience in Korea and some work in China and Vietnam, as well. The "Museum at the End of the World" is titled ironically, and the authors do a good job at highlighting the cosmopolitan histories and present realities of even the small towns in the Russian Far East—nearly every town they visit has a foreign anthropologist in residence, and there are burgeoning relationships with Alaska and other parts of the US, Canada, China, Japan, and Korea, especially in trade. On the other hand, the authors’ own troubles securing air tickets and making flights highlight the drastic contraction in post-Soviet transport infrastructure and the lessened mobility of local Siberians with the reduction of subsidies from the centre. Bloch and Kendall visit regional museums (roughly in the order listed above), bringing CD-ROMs of the Siberian Jesup collection and copies of a recent catalogue of the Drawing Shadows to Stone photographic exhibit of Jesup photographs (from both sides of the Pacific but emphasising the Siberian collections) for museums and libraries. The book is an account of their journey, punctuated with excerpts from letters or early articles describing the travels and adventures undergone by Vladimir Bogoras, Vladimir Jochelson, and Berthold Laufer as they investigated Chukotka, northern Kamchatka, and the Amur River area, respectively, in 1900-1902. Reading about Laufer’s visa problems due to his being a German Jew and the Tsar’s secret instructions to local authorities to thwart and monitor Jochelson at every step, due to his history as a revolutionary exile, puts Bloch’s and Kendall’s visa worries and air ticket snafus in perspective. While it may not seem so to contemporary travellers in the Russian Far East, political and infrastructural conditions for travel and research have vastly improved over the course of the twentieth century.

Regional museums in the Soviet Union were often a “grass-roots” affair, especially in the smaller towns, and they reflect the idiosyncratic curiosities, as well as the particular intellectual and material resources of the communities that they represent. The authors were treated to thorough (if sometimes tedious) tours of all the exhibits in each museum, and I enjoyed the descriptions, although I would have liked a few more pictures of the displays. One of the main goals of Bloch and Kendall’s trip was to build relationships between the AMNH and local museums, and just as importantly, to connect with local indigenous communities to provide them with information about the AMNH collections and lay the groundwork for possible future projects connecting New York better with the Russian Far East. As they recount, these two objectives cannot always be pursued simultaneously. Many of the museums, especially the larger ones in cities like Magadan, Khabarovsk, and Petropavlovsk are managed by non-native “newcomers” and their priorities do not always put indigenous people and their interests first. However, we also learn that the category “newcomer” does not always reflect an individual’s social ties or political heart. For example, the director of the museum in Palana was a Koryak man, but he was so indifferent to Bloch and Kendall’s visit that he went on vacation the month they were supposed to arrive and left it to his deputy, the “newcomer” Tatiana Volkova, to receive the Americans.

In writing this book, the authors have produced clear, accessible prose without the jargon and few of the preoccupations that define anthropology. It is, however, a scholarly work published by a university press, so all sources are properly referenced and the bibliography covers all the important sources on the history of the Jesup expedition and the anthropology of the region. Peculiar Russian/Soviet habits and institutions are explained, and the authors are acutely aware of the social and political ramifications of their presence in, and representations of, the Russian Far East. It is a solid work and the authors are to be commended for that. The authors are especially to be commended for the fact that - what could have been a dry and overly anthropological work - is actually a highly engaging account that gives the reader a real sense of the Russian Far East; albeit from the perspective of an interested outsider.

And so, after just over 5 months of literary travel in this massive country; I take my leave of Russia. The next leg of my journey is Mongolia (also commonly referred to as Outer Mongolia; Inner Mongolia now being a province within China). This is one country that I have always been fascinated with from afar, and I am really looking forward to my trip there. One aspect of this country which has always intrigued me is its conflicting reputation as both an unknown wilderness (typified in its vast expanse of Gobi Desert and native nomadic culture) and a former stronghold of the Soviet Union, as seen in the concrete edifices of its capital city, Ulaanbataar. As such, and because of my fascination with this country, I am allocating two books to Mongolia which hopefully capture, between them, these dual aspects. The first of these "Dateline Mongolia" is located mainly in the capital of Ulaanbaatar (with frequent excursions much further afield in the country), and details three years spent in the country by American immigrant Michael Kohn during his stint as editor of the state newspaper, the Mongol Messenger.

Given the randomness of travel in this region of the world, I bite the bullet financially, and decide to go for the relative security of a scheduled flight from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky airport in the Far Eastern District to Ulaanbataar airport. This is a gruelling 21 hour 50 minute flight with Rossiya Airlines and then Aeroflot (stopping off briefly at Moscow), and costs an even more gruelling £1,518.70 for the one-way flight. However I arrive on time (at 6.10 in the morning) and reasonably refreshed, and ready to explore Mongolia...

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