British Museum artefact goes home on loan to Siberia

British Museum artefact goes home on loan to Siberia

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen are collaborating with the British Museum on the loan of a work of art back to its place of origin in north-east Siberia for a temporary exhibition, for the first time since it left almost 150 years ago.

An unknown artist from the Sakha people, an indigenous community in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Siberia, carved the artefact out of mammoth ivory in the middle of the nineteenth century. Nothing like it exists in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), and few Sakha people have ever seen it.  The model was purchased by the British Museum at the 1867 Paris Exhibition, and it has been in their collection ever since.

The artefact is the earliest known representation of a summer festival called ‘Ysyakh’ in the Sakha language which marks the start of a new yearly cycle. During the Ysyakh a shaman, or spiritual leader, helps people to make offerings to deities and area spirits in order to thank them for their benevolence.

The Ysyakh is the quintessential expression of Sakha identity, but for decades it was suppressed by the Soviet government.  ‘Several generations of Sakha people were forced to keep silent about their culture and traditions’, said Dr. Tatiana Argounova-Low, Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, who herself is Sakha.

Today, Sakha communities are reviving this ancient ritual, as part of a broader revitalisation of their culture and heritage, and the project researchers will be exploring this process in depth. Dr. Argounova-Low added: “Lending the model to the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) will help Sakha people to reconnect with their traditions. Seeing the model will stimulate Sakha people’s memories about the Ysyakh ritual, and the ways they managed to get past Soviet-era prohibitions. They will also rediscover their historic techniques for carving mammoth ivory.”

Dr. Alison Brown, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, and the project’s leader, said: “Indigenous people in many parts of the world have said that reconnecting with historic artefacts helps them to revive cultural traditions threatened during colonisation. This is the first time a museum in Western Europe has loaned an artefact back to an indigenous Siberian community.”

The loan is being co-ordinated by The British Museum, which is a partner on the three year project, and is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.  Dr. Jane Portal, Keeper of the Department of Asia, said:  “The British Museum is very pleased to be working with colleagues in Aberdeen and in the Sakha Republic to enable the loan of the Ysyakh model and to support the exhibition of this important object for visitors to the National Art Museum in Yakutsk.  

The model will be displayed for six months in the National Art Museum in Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), from April 2015. During this time, the project team will work with Dr. Asya Gabysheva, the Museum’s director, to hold workshops and seminars about the model. These will coincide with the Ysyakh celebrations taking place on June 21.

Dr. Gabysheva added: “I have dreamed of exhibiting this model for many years. I was delighted when I heard that the funding had been awarded.”

Sakha craftspeople have been making artefacts out of the mammoth tusks preserved in the region’s permanently frozen soil for centuries. These bones come to the surface as the permafrost shifts, during the freezing and cooling from successive seasonal and climatic changes.