Before 1982, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nation’s premier encyclopedic museum, had no galleries devoted to the cultural achievements of Africa, Oceania, or pre-Columbian art. Early generations of directors of the Met, which opened in its current location on Fifth Avenue in 1880, didn’t think such objects belonged in an art museum.
|Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate. Nelson Rockefellerr lived there.|
|13-15 West 54|
The Museum of Primitive Art opened to the public in 1957 in a townhouse on at 15 West 54th Street, located adjacent to Nelson Rockefeller's boyhood home and directly across from the Museum of Modern Art. Nelson donated to the museum his own collection of Tribal art. Michael, the fifth and last child of Mary Todhunter Rockefeller and Nelson Rockefeller, was 19 when the museum opened. Michael became one of its board members.
Michael Rockefeller was born in 1938. He graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in history and economics. In 1960, he served for six months as a private in the U.S. Army and then went on an expedition for Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of western Netherlands New Guinea.
|Asmats poles in Met Museum|
The Asmats lived right next to the coast along a main waterway. They lived without steel, iron, paper or roads, relying solely on wooden canoes to traverse the Arafura Sea.
In October 1961, Michael with anthropologist Rene Wassing visited 13 villages in three weeks, never spending more than three days in one location. He gathered hundreds of items, among the most prized possession, four sacred bisj poles, spiritual artifacts that are often dedicated to the deceased. The trip was a full success but one trip was not enough.
After a brief stay at home, Michael went back. For nearly two months, he and a friend visited native villages along the coast of New Guinea and up the rivers. On November 18, 1961, in heavy tides and swift currents at the mouth of the Eilanden River, their catamaran overturned.
Two native assistants swam to shore for help. Michael and his friend clung to the canoes for nearly a day. With no help in sight, Michael decided to swim the 12 miles to shore with the help of a life preserver he fashioned from two gas tins tied together with his belt. He was never seen again. His friend stayed with the overturned canoes and was rescued.
A book entitled "Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primative Art" by Carl Hoffman, published in March 2014 gives significant credence to the idea that Michael was killed and eaten by cannibals.
“Headhunting and cannibalism were as right to them as taking communion or kneeling on the carpet facing Mecca,” Michael writes. But Rockefellers never believed in it.
Twenty years later in 1982, the Rockefeller wing in Metropolitan museum opened sponsored by Governor Nelson Rockefeller as a memorial to his son, Michael Rockefeller. The Museum of Primitive Art closed in 1976, and its collections were transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
''In opening the installation,'' Philippe de
Montebello, director of the Met, said, ''we are closing the last gap in our encyclopedic coverage of the arts of man, placing works by artists from so-called 'primitive' regions on the level of oriental, classical, medieval and other more recognized arts of the civilized world.''
Some of the most impressive New Guinea pieces include Asmat bis poles that were collected during the Michael Rockefeller expedition of 1961.
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