The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts an assemblage of what is thought to be the greatest collection of primitive art. It is also haunted with a narrative of sensationalized news headlines – a puzzled mystery of an heir’s disappearance, Dutch colonialism, revenge killing and cannibalism.
Over 50 years ago, Michael C. Rockefeller, son of then Governor of New York City, Nelson Rockefeller (yes, those Rockefeller’s) went missing in New Guinea, then known as Dutch New Guinea.
At 23, an age when most are still trying to figure out their lives, Michael was half-way across the world in a remote part of New Guinea documenting barely contacted tribes. He was also collecting Asmat art for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art at 15 W. 54th St.
Michael had already made several successful trips through the coastal region of New Guinea to Asmat, bartering goods like steel and tobacco in exchange for their intricate sacred wood carvings. In November 1961, during a return expedition to the Asmat region, Michael, and Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing were stranded when their catamaran capsized on the Betsj River. After a night adrift, Michael decided to try to swim to shore to find help, leaving Wassing clinging to the overturned hull. Michael’s last words to him were, ‘I think I can make it…’ Wassing was rescued the next morning – Michael was never seen again.
After a monthlong search without success, the cause of death was ruled as drowning. But speculations and rumors ensued that Michael had been eaten by crocodiles, made it to shore and got lost in the jungle, worse yet, killed and eaten by local Asmat headhunters.
The Asmat culture is hinged on a “complex spiritual world balanced by ceremonies, ritual, and reciprocal violence,” writes Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest, a new book that delivers a convincing case for the story behind Michael’s disappearance.
“Headhunting and cannibalism were as right to them as taking communion or kneeling on the carpet facing Mecca,” he writes
Michael Rockefeller had arrived in New Guinea during a time of change. The Dutch government had taken over the United East India Company occupation in the region, overseeing the colonies. On their watch, five Asmat leaders were gunned down. Tragic events made even more unfortunate when you ponder on the Asmat believe that death requires death, and retribution is vital to placating the spirits. Now image that Michael might have walked into that world at the wrong time.
During his time in New Guinea, Michael gathered hundreds of items, among them sacred hand carved bisj poles – ancestor poles with interwoven carvings to honor the spirit of a slain warrior or tribesman and represent the responsibility to avenge that death. They now stand in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which absorbed the collections of the Museum of Primitive Art after it closed in 1976.
When you visit this wing, keep in mind, Nelson Rockefeller was the major force behind this ambitious attempt to amass enough pieces to mount the largest exhibition of primitive art ‘ever’. Rockefeller held a pioneering belief that artists from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were equal in every respect to those of their peers across the globe – earlier generations of Metropolitan directors did not share his enthusiasm for non-Western art.
Each piece is a testament to the skepticism he ignored and a reminder of a life that was lost acquiring some of it.
Explore the art that help change the map of the MET and learn more about the dynamics of Asmat society. The Primitive Art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – you haven’t experienced it until you’ve seen it.
Read More: What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller Smithsonian Magazine excerpt from Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, by Carl Hoffman. by Carl Hoffman
The Vanishing ‘Savage Harvest’ by Carl Hoffman – NY Times Book Review
“The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 72, no. 1
Watch More: The Search for Michael Rockefeller (documentary) Netflix on Demand
Learn More: Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas / Michael Rockefeller Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat Bisj Poles
Headdress Effigy (Hareiga) / Chachet Baining people, Papua New Guinea