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78 min. English, Mid Grand Valley Dani, Dutch.

In 1961, filmmaker Robert Gardner organized the Harvard Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea (today West Papua). Funded by the Dutch colonial government and private donations, and consisting of several wealthy Americans wielding 16mm film cameras, still photographic cameras, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and a microphone, the expedition settled for five months in the Baliem Valley, among the Hubula people. It resulted in Gardner’s influential film Dead Birds, two photo books, Peter Matthiessen’s book “Under the Mountain Wall,” and two ethnographic monographs. Michael Rockefeller, of the Standard Oil Rockefellers, was tasked with taking pictures and recording sound in and around the Hubula world.
Expedition Content is an augmented sound work composed from 37 hours of tape, which document the strange encounter between the expedition and the Hubula people. The piece reflects on intertwined and complex historical moments in the development of approaches to multimodal anthropology, in the lives of the Hubula and of Michael, and in the ongoing history of colonialism in West Papua.

Ernst Karel, born in 1970 in Palo Alto, USA, works with sound, including electroacoustic music, experimental nonfiction sound works for multichannel installation and performance, and postproduction sound for nonfiction film, with an emphasis on observational cinema. His work often focuses on the practice of location recording and composing with unprocessed location recordings. In the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, Karel has collaborated with filmmakers and taught courses in reality-based audio. In fall 2019 he was the visiting fellow at the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania.

Veronika Kusumaryati, born in 1980 in Bantul, Indonesia, is a political and media anthropologist working in West Papua. Her scholarship engages with the theories and historiography of colonialism, decolonization, and postcoloniality. She has worked as a curator and produced documentaries that have been screened at various film festivals. She received her bachelors degree from the Jakarta Institute of Arts majoring in Film and Media Studies. She is a member of the Sensory Ethnography Lab and currently a Harvard College Fellow in Anthropology.

On the Harvard Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea, 1961

The Harvard Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea was a large-scale anthropological expedition carried out by American anthropologists and artists in 1961. It was a three-year undertaking that was largely funded by private donations, including the Rockefeller family, with the support of the Dutch colonial government, and took place among the Hubula (also well-known as the Dani) of the Baliem Valley in Netherlands New Guinea from April to August 1961, two years before the territory was transferred from the Netherlands to Indonesia.

The Harvard Peabody Expedition is exemplary not only because it was influential in shaping the direction of American anthropology, but also because to a large extent it shaped the American understanding of Papuans and American foreign policy toward the region until today – through their influence on American academics and American publics. This is due to two factors. First, while using a mode of scientific knowledge production that was popular in the first half of the 20th century, the Harvard Peabody Expedition embarked on a new direction of anthropological research in the 1960s through the intensive use of audiovisual technology. As a result, the Harvard Peabody Expedition became one of the most well documented studies of a single area in the world and its influence reached a wider audience, outside the confines of academia.

The expedition produced Robert Gardner’s feature-length film DEAD BIRDS (1964), Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction book “Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea” (1962), two doctoral dissertations by Karl G. Heider and Jan Broekhuijse, and two books of photographs, “Gardens of War” (1968) edited by Robert Gardner and Karl G. Heider, and Michael Rockefeller’s “New Guinea Photographs, 1961” (2006), as well as an archive of 37 hours of Michael Rockefeller’s audio recordings of the Hubula world.

Secondly, the controversial disappearance of Michael Clark Rockefeller (1938–1961) in New Guinea, three months after this expedition took place. Michael Rockefeller was the youngest child of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller and a fourth-generation member of the Rockefeller family. The young Rockefeller joined the expedition as a sound recordist and still photographer. After the Baliem Valley, he went to study and gather artifacts from the Asmat in the southern part of New Guinea where he disappeared in 1961. His disappearance has been subject to many popular accounts (Machlin 2001, Hoffman 2014, and Morgan 2014), embedded in anthropological myths about fieldwork, and countless accounts about Papuan cannibalism. Was he, as one story has it, killed and eaten by the Asmat?

Both the Harvard Peabody Expedition and the disappearance of the young Rockefeller took place when the territory was entangled in a monumental political dispute that would determine the fate and history of New Guinea. An international negotiation on the political status of New Guinea had taken place since 1949. In 1962, the United States underwrote the New York agreement, in which the Dutch were forced to transfer the Netherlands New Guinea to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). UNTEA transferred its administrative functions to Indonesia on 1 May 1963 as part of the larger wave of postwar decolonization occurring across the crumbling European empires of this period. As part of the agreement, the Indonesian government conducted the Act of Free Choice in 1969, in which all Papuan adults would be given the chance to cast their vote and decide their political future; as a part of Indonesia, or as an independent state. But instead of holding a free and fair referendum, the Indonesian government handpicked approximately 1,025 tribal leaders, in violation of the requirements set out in the agreement and intimidated them to vote for Indonesia (Lagerberg 1979, Osbourne 1985, Drooglever 2009, Kirksey 2012). Despite its controversial process, international communities recognized the status of the region as part of Indonesia. Since then on, the indigenous Papuans have been fighting against what they perceive as an Indonesian occupation of their territory.

The Rockefeller family recently donated the archive of Michael Rockefeller’s audio recordings in West Papua to the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which have since been digitized at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music. Presumably intended mainly to be of use in the making of what became Robert Gardner’s film DEAD BIRDS, which constituted a landmark work of ethnographic cinema, the recordings represent an astonishing variety of aspects of Hubula culture, including quotidian activities, ceremonies, warfare, and music and other performances of historical and aesthetic importance. The materials themselves consist of 123 tapes, or about 37 hours of recordings made by Michael Rockefeller from April to August 1961. EXPEDITION CONTENT is created as part of a larger project to revisit the archives, which will be returned to the Hubula people of West Papua.

Broekhuijse, Jan. 1967. De Wiligiman-Dani: een cultureel-anthropologische studie over religie en oorlogvoering in de Baliem-vallei. Diss. Utrecht. Tilburg: Gianotten.
Bubriski, Kevin, Michael Rockefeller and Robert Gardner. 2006. Michael Rockefeller: New Guinea Photographs, 1961. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum.
Drooglever, Pieter. 2009. An Act of Free Choice: Decolonisation and the Right to Self-Determination in West Papua. London: Oneworld Publications.
Gardner, Robert. 1964. Dead Birds. Film. Cambridge, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Gardner, Robert and Karl G. Heider. Introd. by Margaret Mead. 1968. Gardens of war: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. New York: Random House.
Heider, Karl G. 1970. The Dugum Dani: A Papuan culture in the highlands of West New Guinea. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.
Heider, Karl G. 1979. Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful warriors. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Heston, Fraser C. 2011. The Search for Michael Rockefeller. Directed by Fraser C. Heston. Film.
Hoffman, Carl. 2015. Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.
Kirsch, Stuart. 2002. “Rumour and Other Narratives of Political Violence in West Papua.” Critique of Anthropology 22(1):53–79.
Kirsch, Stuart. 2010. ”Ethnographic Representation and the Politics of Violence in West Papua.” Critique of Anthropology 30(1):3–22.
Kirksey, Eben. 2012. Freedom in Entangled Worlds. West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lagerberg, Kees. 1979. West Irian and Jakarta Imperialism. London: Palgrave.
Machlin, Milt. 2001. The Search for Michael Rockefeller. New York: Common Reader.
Matthiessen, Peter. 1962. Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea. London: Collins Harvill.
Morgan, Mary Rockefeller. 2014. When Grief Calls Forth the Healing: A Memoir of Losing A Twin. New York: Open Road Media.
Osborne, Robin. 1985. Indonesia’s Secret War: The Guerilla Struggle in Irian Jaya. Boston: Allen & Unwin.
Rockefeller, Michael Clark and Adrian A. Gerbrands (ed.). 1967. The Asmat of New Guinea: The Journal of Michael Clark Rockefeller (The Michael C. Rockefeller Expeditions 1961). New York: Museum of Primitive Art.
Rutherford, Danilyn. 2003. Raiding the Land of the Foreigners. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Rutherford, Danilyn. 2012. Laughing at Leviathan: Sovereignty and Audience in West Papua. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Production Sensory Ethnography Lab. Production company Sensory Ethnography Lab (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA). Directed by Ernst Karel, Veronika Kusumaryati. Editing Ernst Karel, Veronika Kusumaryati.


Ernst Karel: 2014: Single Stream (with Pawel Wojtasik and Toby Kim Lee, 23 min.). 2015: Ah humanity! (with Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 23 min.). 2020: Expedition Content.

Veronika Kusumaryati: 2013: Iqra (13 min.). 2020: Expedition Content.

Photo: © Sensory Ethnography Lab

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur