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"Meeting of Frontiers" Conference

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Remarks

Barbara Sweetland-Smith,
Anchorage Museum

It is an honor to share the stage with Dr. Postnikov, who has contributed so much to bringing new information about Pacific exploration to light. His work, and that of other scholars such as Marvin Falk as well as that of many of you in the audience has been invaluable to me as I have worked for many years to bring the fruits of your labors to the public at large, through the medium of museum exhibitions, teaching, and lectures. I will talk in a few minutes about Russia's great voyages of exploration, but I would like to tell you first about how my own work bridged the frontier between Russia and North America--in a way that is unfamiliar to many scholars. It is quite one thing to study a document in a Russian archive and quite another to walk out with it--and get away with it.

Some years ago, I was "just a scholar," finishing a project documenting the National Historical Landmark Russian church in Kenai, Alaska. The Anchorage Museum of History and Art asked me to consider organizing an exhibition about Russian America, although they warned that it would be difficult. The Museum itself did not have enough material for an exhibit, and I would have to contact museums and individuals all over the world to tell a good story. This was enough incentive for me--that we could begin to learn where the material culture of Alaska's history is housed.

My own expertise was in the history of Russia's cultural presence in Alaska--primarily the institution of the Orthodox Church. I had worked for almost twenty years with the National Park Service and the Alaska Historical Commission to document Russia's cultural legacy in Alaska. Although I was new to the world of museum exhibitions, I was excited about the project, for museums and their publications reach the audience we scholars all hope to reach eventually: teachers, students, the public. I hoped I could contribute to public education with an accurate and balanced history of Russian America.

The director of the Anchorage Museum had never contracted with an historian before and constantly admonished me not to put "a book on a wall." I was told that we needed "the real stuff" for an exhibition. And so my search began. I hardly knew where to start, with the "real stuff" of Russia's history in Alaska so widely scattered. Fortunately I could rely on such friends as Richard Pierce, Marvin Falk, and Lydia Black for contacts. Richard, for example, knew of the bronze bust of Alexander I that had stood on a pedestal in front of the Russian-American Company offices on Kodiak Island from the time of Rezanov. He knew the name of the most recent owner but did not know where he was. I used the oldest detective trick in the book. I checked the Anchorage phone book and found William Lamme lived just down the street from the museum.

But ultimately it was not my detective work that made a great difference, but the willingness of Russian museums and archives to participate wholeheartedly in our effort to tell this important story. It was their "wonderful stuff" that made Russian America, Heaven on Earth, and Science under Sail popular and substantive exhibitions.

Most of my search took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg for Russian America and Science under Sail. In 1988, I made a wish list of outrageous documents, art works, and objects--outrageous because surely impossible to borrow. Among these treasures were Peter the Great's "decree " of 1725 sending Bering on the First Kamchatka Expedition, Mikhail Tikhanov's original oil portrait of Alexander Baranov, an original charter of the Russian-American Company, Paul I's ukaze establishing the Russian-American Company, correspondence between John Jacob Astor and Baranov in 1812, original journals kept by explorers such as Gavriil Sarychev and Yuri Lisiansky. I sent the "wish list" off to several museums and to the Central State Archives. I arrived in Moscow in the fall of 1988 without appointments, but with some very kind help from Svetlana Fedorova and the late Serge Serov.

I found every archivist and museum director warm and receptive, eager to participate and with their own list of wonderful documents and objects that more than matched my own. My experience over the last 13 years has been similar. The museums and archives are eager to participate, to help tell the story of Russia's long association with America. Indeed, we broke new ground with our latest exhibition, Science under Sail: Russia's Great Voyages to America, 1728-1867, that opened in May 2000, at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Visitors to this exhibition were able to see

  • the original map of the 1741 trans-Pacific voyage by Sven Waxell,
  • Martin Spanberg's map of the Gvozdev-Fedorov voyage of 1732 and first contact with Alaska Natives,
  • Mikhail Levashov's atlas with his premier paintings of Aleut life,
  • one of Luka Voronin's albums of Siberian "field sketches,"
  • original plant specimens collected by naturalists more than 200 years ago,
  • botanical sketches by Adelbert von Chamisso,
  • and zoological paintings by Ilya Voznesensky-never published and never exhibited before.

All of these were loaned by our colleagues in St. Petersburg. Six museums and archives participated in Science under Sail:

  • The Russian State Archives of the Navy,
  • the Central Naval Museum,
  • the St. Petersburg Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Scientific Research Museum of the Academy of Arts,
  • Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera),
  • and the Komarov Botanical Institute.

Together they contributed 121 objects, works of art, manuscripts, maps, and specimens--nearly half of the exhibition. I should mention that a very large quantity of the balance of objects came from the exceptional Rare Books, Maps, and Manuscripts Department of the Rasmuson Library, here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I am deeply indebted to Marvin Falk for his enthusiastic support of this project and the generous loan policy of the Rasmuson Library and its Arctic and Polar Regions Department, led by Susan Grigg.

Developing an exhibition involves finding such "wonderful stuff" but also telling a story the public can understand but that is also "True," or as close as we can come given the availability of the primary sources.

The story of "Science under Sail" emerged in a thoroughly modern way. An American businessman approached the Anchorage Museum about an exhibition on Russian maritime history. He and the Museum director asked me to explore the feasibility of such an exhibition. I considered all the possibilities that might fit the general topic of Russian maritime exploits and the mission of the Anchorage Museum--to tell Alaska's history. I proposed a story about the science of the voyages of exploration that would emphasize Alaska, but also touch on Russia's exploration of Japan, eastern and northern Siberia, and California.

This subject matter was new to me, but I was eager to learn about it. I soon found that there were almost no monographs on Russia's significant contribution to the natural history of North America--apart from the published journals of some of the voyagers. Introductions to these volumes by such fine scholars as Richard Pierce, Carol Urness, Jack Frost, and Dr. Joann Moessner, helped to put their work into a broader context. But what was needed was a monograph on the history of the natural science of these voyages--to rival the books about Cook's voyages. I found only two helpful articles--chapters in much larger books--"Geographical Exploration by the Russians" by Lebedev and Grekov in The Pacific Basin: A History of Its Geographical Exploration, published forty years ago, and "The Russians," in Jacques Brosse's Great Voyages of Discovery: Circumnavigators and Scientists, 1764-1843, published in 1983. But these were enough--to help me write the outline of our story and begin the search for the evidence of Russia's scientific footprint in North America. Science under Sail will be shown at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park from August 4 through December 2001.

In the course of the 139 years from 1728 to 1867, Russia made more than 200 significant voyages in and around the North Pacific. Forty of these, in the 19th century, were round-the-world expeditions, and carried a significant complement of scientists, as well as scientifically trained navigators. Science under Sail focuses on eight of these. The four in the eighteenth century are: the First and Second expeditions of 1728 and 1741, the Krenitsyn-Levashov expedition of 1766-1770, and the Billings-Sarychev expedition of 1785-93. In the 19th century, we featured the circumnavigations of Krusenstern-Lisiansky, 1803-1806; the two Kotzebue voyages of 1815-18 and 1826-29 and the Litke expedition of 1826-29. While these eight voyages are our main subjects, we include Vasily Golovnin among our illustrious mariners and Mikhail Tikhanov of his expedition among our featured and most honored expedition artists.

Using nearly 300 objects and 100 illustrations, we help the visitor consider the questions: Why Did the Russians Go to America? How Did they Get There? What Science Did they Do? What Did They Find? And What Is Their Legacy?

The words of Catherine the Great helped us organize the exhibition. Her "Instructions" to Joseph Billings in 1785 provided the leit motif that connects the various elements of this complex story. She advised Billings and his team of scientists "to bring to perfection the knowledge acquired under her glorious reign." To do this, they were instructed to describe in detail "all the remarkable places" and "the natural curiosities" they encountered both on land and at sea. They were also to interview, observe, and describe all the peoples they met. Catherine issued her instructions through the Russian Academy of Sciences. From its inception by Peter the Great in 1724, the Academy had scoured Russia and Europe for outstanding scientists to accompany the voyages of exploration--and artists to record the "remarkable places" and "natural curiosities." The international character of these voyages was one of their appealing features and has come as a surprise to visitors to the exhibition. Georg Steller, a German, and Serge Krasheninnikov, a Russian, were among the first to go east, each of them documenting for the first time in Europe previously unknown animal and plant species, and peoples of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Three Russians, Mikhail Levashov and Gavriil Sarychev, both wonderfully artistic mariners, and the artist Luka Voronin provided the first European drawings of the peoples of eastern Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, and Prince William Sound. In the 19th century, more Germans and Baltic Germans rushed to join the Russian voyages around the world. W. G. Tilesius von Tilenau, a scientist from Leipzig, eagerly joined the Krusenstern expedition of 1803-1806 and has left us memorable portraits of people and exceptionally detailed paintings of the flora and fauna of Japan, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. In 1815, Adelbert von Chamisso, a popular poet and teller of tales in Germany, used the influence of his father's friendship with August von Kotzebue to win a place on the great scientific expedition of the elder Kotzebue's son, Otto. Chamisso was well educated in a variety of disciplines. In addition to his prodigious writing talent, he was a trained medical doctor and botanist. Following the Kotzebue voyage, he became the director of the Berlin Herbarium. He is credited with first describing for European science more than 50 plant species in Alaska, and 30 in California, with the first treatise on the whales of the North Pacific, and publishing the first complete botanical profile of a region in western North America. In 1816 and 1817, Chamisso collected and later described every plant species on the island of Unalaska. Science under Sail includes actual specimens collected by Chamisso, illustrated pages from his pioneering manuscript, and the driftwood whale models he asked Aleut/Unangan carvers to make for him in 1816.

The Russian voyages of the 19th century were remarkable for the advancement of science--in part because they were the major European power circumnavigating the globe. Krusenstern's 3-year voyage tested a new thermometer for its reliability in recording and holding marine temperatures at great depth. It was found wanting. Twenty years later, on Kotzebue's second voyage into the Pacific, a young scientist from Tartu University successfully deployed an instrument that could collect water as deep as 3000 fathoms. This record lasted for more than forty years--and the "bathometer" devised by Emil Lenz and G. F. Parrot was "state of the art" until the British Challenger expedition of the 1870s. On this same voyage, Johann Eschscholtz, also from Tartu University, was the ship's naturalist. He recorded collections of more than 2400 species, many of them from Sitka and from California. And with his mineral collections from these voyages, Eschscholtz founded the Estonian Geological Museum.

Only three years later, an expedition commanded by Captain Fedor Litke set new records of collecting, description, and experimentation. While all of the Russian naval commanders had training in marine science and technology, Litke was particularly interested in pure science. On his voyage, he took readings with an invariable pendulum, as part of an international effort to learn more about gravity and the shape of the earth. In addition, he conducted studies on magnetism and barometric pressure at different latitudes. Aside from these important physics experiments, Litke produced an outstanding atlas of the North Pacific that was a summary of one hundred years of charting and mapping on both sides of the Bering Sea. His scientific team also included an artist and two naturalists, who amassed the largest collection of plant and animal species by any voyage up to that time. Science under Sail includes a modern replica of the invariable pendulum, Litke's atlas, art, and specimens from the voyage.

Unearthing the evidence of this exceptional history of scientific achievement was an arduous task that took almost five years. I found many parts of the story, but there were important gaps. I searched but did not find any personal memorabilia from Litke--his papers or artifacts collected by him. I was particularly interested in the field sketches by the naturalists on his voyages, Alexander Postels, K-H. Mertens, and Friedrich Kittlitz. I found only a very few of their original works in the Archives of the Academy of Sciences. There are more than 1000 Postels illustrations in that Archives, but only a handful are from the North Pacific region. I found virtually nothing from Kittlitz. It also seemed incredible to me that the Lenz' bathometer that was so successful for so many years as a water sampling device was not preserved either in Russia or in Estonia. But it was not. We were able, however, to construct a model of the actual instrument from Lenz' drawings that I found in the Archives of Tartu University. Most surprising, perhaps, was the absence of any collection of papers or artifacts from Kotzebue. Of objects collected on his voyages, I found only a visored hat in the History Museum in Tallinn--nothing that could be identified with him in the Russian museums or archives. I had a similar experience with Golovnin, although the Kunstkamera has a few objects they identify with him.

There were compensations for these disappointments. I think in particular of the Voznesensky watercolors. This great zoologist does not figure in the voyages of exploration. He was a scientist, a zoologist, who spent ten years living and collecting in Siberia, Alaska, and California. Because of the size and importance of his collections, however, he ranks as a preeminent figure in the history of science in the North Pacific. When I discovered a cache of 300-400 of his watercolors of animals and fish at the Science archives in St. Petersburg, I decided without hesitation to include him in the exhibition. These watercolors of animal species in Siberia, Alaska, and California had never been published and were virtually unknown.

The exhibition project took six years. It included research of the story, the search for the evidence, design of the presentation, and raising a large sum of money--almost one million dollars, and organization of a symposium. In the end, I had to give up the search for elusive collections in the interests of getting "the show on the road." The symposium has provided us with the opportunity to hear and publish papers by a number of leading scholars, as a stimulus for new work in this important field. The publication is scheduled for two years from now.

Now that Science under Sail has been launched, it is time to examine what remains to be done to deepen and broaden this story. It is important to have an inventory of Alaskan objects in Russian museums and Alaska--related documents in Russian archives. The project of the Library of Congress to make documents available on the Web is outstanding. I would like to know which repositories in Russia and Europe contain the documents and collections of such important figures as Louis Choris, V. M. Golovnin, Otto von Kotzebue, Johann von Krusenstern, Alexander Postels, and Gavriil Sarychev. It also is time for a major history of the science of these voyages, expanding and deepening the fine effort begun by Jacques Brosse in 1983. An international bibliography of writings by and about the scientists and navigators is essential. We need more biographies of the principals in these voyages. I would be the first to devour anything about Sarychev or Golovnin.

Another area worthy of study is marine science and technology. Advances in these areas were outstanding during the era of the great Russian voyages--largely due to Russian expertise and the frequency of their long voyages. The Russian navy was in the forefront of international experiments with new hydrographic instruments and navigation technology. This is a story that needs to be told. Particularly it needs to be told because it is so completely absent from the history books read by students and the public. For example, a recent lavishly illustrated book by the British Royal Geographic Society, History of World Exploration, mentions only Vitus Bering, showing his track of 1741 to America. Another publication, The Explorers, does not mention the Russian voyages at all. Both Russians and Americans need to know the untold story of North Pacific exploration history. There is a lot of work to do. Where shall we start?

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