29. The Artistic Rockefeller
Michael Rockefeller was into art and travel, not cut of the same businessman cloth as the tycoons who made his family America’s richest clan. In 1954, his father established the Museum of Primitive Art, America’s first museum dedicated to the works of tribes from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, and Michael was made a trustee. After his stint in the US Army, he went to Papua in western New Guinea, now part of Indonesia but then still under Dutch colonial administration. Michael was a soundman in an expedition sent by the Peabody Museum to film an ethnographic documentary about the Dani tribe. The resultant documentary, Dead Birds, won accolades and awards, and eventually ended up in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. At some point, Rockefeller took a short break from the expedition to study the Asmat tribe, which dwelled along Papua’s southwestern coast.
They fascinated him. So when the Peabody expedition was over, Rockefeller returned to Papua to further study the Asmat and collect samples of their arts. He secured hundreds of objects such as spears, drums, shields, and bowls. He also collected totem-like structures known as bisj poles that were used in ceremonies, and ceremonial carvings known as spirit canoes that celebrate the recently deceased and the initiation of young boys. The expedition came to an abrupt end on the morning of November 18th, 1961, when Michael, a Dutch anthropologist named Renee Wassing assigned to him as a governmental chaperone, and two local kids, boarded a motorboat. Their route crossed the mouth of the Betsj River, a tricky stretch where outrushing water met incoming tides. Calm waters suddenly grew turbulent when the wind picked up, giant waves began to crash all around, and the boat was swiftly swamped, its motor killed.