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Open Access Publications from the University of California

 Berlin’s Ethnological Museum: The California Indian Collection


The Ethnologisches Museum: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (formerly the Museum für Völkerkunde, and referred to here as the Berlin Ethnological Museum) contains over 1,000 artifacts fashioned by California Indians, collected between 1837 and 1914. The collection is rich and varied; it represents one of the earliest ethnographic collections from Native California and includes ethnological treasures of great aesthetic quality and rarity. The collection is an invaluable source of scientific information and cultural renewal. The objects are highly regarded by living descendants of the Native Californians who long ago sold, traded, and exchanged these artifacts with collectors. They are heirlooms reflecting tribal history and culture, and are worthy of remembrance and study. In this paper we offer first-hand observations on a small sample (n =10) of the Berlin Ethnological Museum’s California Indian collection, with a particular emphasis on baskets. We describe and discuss these objects in detail in order to bring to life the people and cultures that brilliantly produced such exquisite, artistic objects and ethnographic treasures. We also attempt to identify their historical context and the circumstances motivating their collection, so as to better understand how they came to be curated in Berlin. Finally, we provide a brief overview of the history and development of the Berlin Ethnological Museum’s California Indian collection, because the intriguing interconnections and influential coincidences associated with it provide insights into the history and nature of the early development of California Indian studies and particularly illuminate the evolution of the science of anthropology as an academic discipline in America.

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