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Crossroads of Continents
The Virtual Museum.
For an introduction to the historical, scientific, and geological environment on which this exhibit is based, click here. We invite you to wander through the exhibit as you would in a real museum. Click in the picture to move through the virtual exhibit, or look for navigation options on the bar below the image. In this case there's only one: Please enter!

Crossroads of Continents

map of the North Pacific Rim The Old World and the New World meet at Bering Strait, the top of a great arc of land forming the North Pacific Rim. This is the "Crossroads of Continents" between Asia and North America; one of the last populated regions of the globe to be discovered by Europeans.

The North Pacific Rim was first approached by Europeans from two directions: Russian Cossacks followed by the Czar's explorers reached Bering Strait from the west in the 17th century and from the East, explorers and whalers arrived in the 18th century.

To outsiders, this region appeared almost too remarkable for words. Its lands and waters teemed with life, and its peoples had learned to utilize its resources to produce sophisticated cultures of great vitality. Beginning in the mid 18th century, Russian explorers gathered large quantities of native artifacts from the northwestern coasts of North America. These collections were shipped back to Museums in Russia. Near the turn of the 20th century, Franz Boas, the "father" of American Anthropology, directed the Jesup North Pacific Expedition from the American Museum of Natural History. In an unusual twist of history, his teams collected artifacts from Siberia and northeastern Asia and sent them back to America.

By the mid 20th century, with its people already wracked by Western diseases and its environment depleted of valuable furs and sea mammals, the Cold War military confrontation brought a new wave of external forces into the region. An ice curtain fell between Siberia and Alaska that created an artifical separation between people, languages and cultures that had been closely connected for thousands of years.

This artificial political boundary also separated the great collections which documented the heritage of North Pacific peoples. The early Alaskan material was locked away in St. Petersburg and the Siberian artifacts were in the storerooms of the American Museum in New York. Native people along with Russians and Americans were estranged from a portion of their heritage by impenetrable political barriers.

Unable to learn about the history of native cultures in their own lands, it became increasingly difficult for outsiders or Native peoples to see the North Pacific region as having shared a common past. In the absence of contacts and dialogue across Bering Strait, its peoples began to be seen as separate, alienated, and aligned only with their current political states.

The "Crossroads of Continents" exhibition was designed to address this accident of history and bring the artifacts out of the storerooms; to offer the world a look at the combined cultural materials of northeastern Siberia and northwestern North America as they have always appeared to the people who lived there. This may be the end of the tradition in which Westerners take the lead in presenting the cultures of the North Pacific. Fortunately, now there are few barriers to the exchange of information and materials across Bering Strait. Perhaps our experience of the 20th century will be seen as anomalous in the larger frame of time, and that the process of exchange, once reborn, will accelerate. The beauty of these materials will continue to inspire new generations of North Pacific peoples to express their views of themselves and the world around them with the grace and artistry seen in the creations of their ancestors. This, surely, is a proper role for museum treasures.

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