In what scholars are calling "an important crossroads" toward understanding Siberian and Alaskan culture and enhancing U.S.-Soviet relations, a landmark Smithsonian exhibition of artifacts and artworks from native peoples on both sides of the Bering Strait goes on view Sunday at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park.
The first exhibition to be jointly mounted by Soviet and North American scholars, scientists and curators, "Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska" includes nearly 600 artifacts ranging from kayaks, harpoons, clothing and journals to artworks such as masks, ivory carvings, beadwork and photographs. It's the largest traveling exhibition ever mounted by the prestigious Smithsonian Institution, said Smithsonian exhibition curator William W. Fitzhugh.
"This is a historic exhibition that could not have been done by any single country alone," said Fitzhugh, noting that the curatorial team spent 12 years to mount the show. In 1988 the exhibit began its tour of six American cities, including Washington and Seattle. After leaving the Gene Autry Museum on Feb. 24, the show will travel through 1994 to Anchorage and Ottawa before hitting a number of Soviet cities, including Moscow, Leningrad and Novosibirsk.
"The show represents the cultural and historic unity of what I like to call the 'Arctic Mediterranean' area," Fitzhugh said. "Working with the team (of Soviet, American and Canadian scientists, scholars and curators) that we did allowed us to rejoin the collections and bring back the understanding of that area that we've lost."
Ironically, Fitzhugh said, most of the early North American works included in the show actually came from the Soviet Union, whereas the best Siberian pieces have been housed in New York. This twist came about historically in the 18th and 19th centuries, he said, when early Russian colonization of North America resulted in a wealth of artifacts being taken to Leningrad, and later, when New York-based scholars and anthropologists led numerous expeditions to Siberia.
A major point of the show, Fitzhugh said, is to dispel myths about the arctic region and its culture.
"It's not a remote, weather-beaten part of the world. It's a really rich part of the world, full of history and art, and rich cultures."
Because of commonly held stereotypes, Fitzhugh noted, the Smithsonian has faced a "difficult reception" at each of its venues: "People believe the show is about one thing, and so they may not want to get out to see it. But when they actually do get out they'll find that it's as rich as any show of European art and history."
Fitzhugh and his Soviet counterpart, Sergei Yakovlevich Serov, senior researcher with Leningrad's Institute of Ethnology, who was in town before the exhibit's opening, both noted that work on the joint exhibition began before Mikhail Gorbachev brought his \o7 glasnost \f7 reforms to the Soviet Union.
"There were always problems, problems of bureaucracy in formalizing the exhibit and technical problems with the administration and the government, but to work with the North American scholars was very easy and very pleasurable. There were no political problems," said Serov. "It was an early sign of Russian-American cooperation . . . before Gorbachev."