Please give a warm Mysteristas welcome to Jennifer Alderson!
How an Exhibition Inspired my Artifact Mystery
I am so pleased to be featured on Mysteristas today, the release date of Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery!
This is the third novel in my Adventures of Zelda Richardson series and second book set in my adopted hometown of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. My experiences as an expat, art history student and collection researcher – as well as the turbulent history of this amazing city – inspired and informed the storylines, subject matter, and several characters in The Lover’s Portrait and Rituals of the Dead.
Though the plot of The Lover’s Portrait was shaped by several events, exhibitions, archival research and university lectures, the idea for Rituals of the Dead originated from a single exhibition held at the Tropenmuseum in 2008 – Bis poles: Sculptures of the Rainforest.
Bis poles and the Tropenmuseum
Four subjects are central to the narrative – artifact smuggling, anthropology (physical and cultural), missionaries, and the treatment of human remains. It was while working on the aforementioned Bis poles exhibition that I was introduced to all four.
In Rituals of the Dead, a missing anthropologist’s journal is discovered inside a bis pole crate. As an intern working at the Tropenmuseum, Zelda is tasked with finding out more about the man’s last days and his connection to these ritual objects. Her research pulls her into a world of shady anthropologists, headhunters, missionaries, art collectors, and smugglers – where the only certainty is that the sins of the past are never fully erased.
The Tropenmuseum is an ethnographic and anthropological museum in Amsterdam. It is also one of three public institutions in the Netherlands with sizeable collections of Asmat art and artifacts. Considering the Dutch ruled (the now Indonesian) half of Papua New Guinea for three hundred years, it’s not really a surprise so many objects ended up here. That is also why the historical chapters in my novel take place in 1962, before the Dutch ceded control to the newly formed government of Indonesia a year later.
Like Zelda in this novel, I was tasked with finding audiovisual material suitable for the upcoming exhibition. I searched through many fascinating archives and photographic collections for images pertaining to Asmat artifacts, as well as a number of legendary Dutch missionaries and anthropologists active in Dutch New Guinea. During my research I came across many bizarre stories about headhunting raids, crazy explorers and colonial officers that stuck with me long after the exhibition opened.
Michael Rockefeller and Dutch New Guinea
Because two of the Asmat bis poles we were about to display were collected by the American anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, he was also part of my research assignment. I soon discovered these poles were donated to the National Ethnography Museum in Leiden by his parents, to thank the Dutch government for their help in searching for their missing son.
Rockefeller’s name may ring a bell with readers. He was in Papua New Guinea on his second acquisition trip when he vanished from the face of the earth. He was also the son of Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of New York State, which made his disappearance international news – unusual in the days before social media. His body has never been found.
I also learned Rockefeller tended to offer more than the going rate for artifacts, to the dismay of local missionaries and colonial authorities. There are even instances recorded in Dutch colonial documentation of Asmat villagers asking permission to go on a headhunting raid so they could make a fortune by selling the newly acquired skulls to Rockefeller.
Artifact theft and smuggling
At least Rockefeller paid for the items he collected. The colonial archives are full of references to anthropologists, colonial government officials, surveyors, missionary workers, and adventurers accused of stealing culturally-significant objects from Asmat villages.
One example is Carel Groenevelt, a professional collector who acquired thousands of Asmat artifacts for museums, including fifty of the seventy-five poles held in Dutch collections. A Dutch missionary working in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s, Reverend Gerard Zegwaard, often acted as a middle man for several anthropologists who wished to barter from Asmat artifacts – including Groenevelt. Despite having Zegwaard’s help, Groenevelt later admitted to finding poles on the ground in 1953 and taking them – without asking permission from, or paying, the locals who carved them. All of the artifacts he collected are still part of these museums’ collections.
Human remains in museums
At the same time we were preparing the Bijs Poles exhibition, the Tropenmuseum was wrestling with an extensive collection of human remains, many of which were collected in the 1930s through the 1960s in Papua New Guinea. As described in my book, crates of unidentified bones were found in Amsterdam Medical Center’s basement after it flooded. They had been moved to the hospital in 1973 when anatomical museum Vrolik was being remodeled, placed in the atomic bomb shelter and left – literally – to rot.
After they’d been rediscovered, the Tropenmuseum agreed to sort through them. It took the museum’s staff six years to sort and document this collection of human remains. Yet once they’d determined where they’d come from, the museum ran into an unexpected problem. In contrast to my book, there were no claims laid on any of these remains, in fact no one wanted them. The question became how to dispose of the bones in an ethical manner. My internship coincided with the museum’s organization of an international symposium to discuss this topic, and attempts to create an exhibition about the moral dilemmas museums face when displaying human remains.
These historical facts, people, and real-life coincidences provided me with a wild cast of characters and events that I used as the basis for a mystery about bis poles, anthropologists, and artifact smuggling.
What about you, Mysteristas? Where do your ideas come from?
Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery
Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Alderson’s latest art mystery thriller, Rituals of the Dead, book three of the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series.
Art history student Zelda Richardson is working at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam on an exhibition of bis poles from the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea – the same area where a famous American anthropologist disappeared in 1962. When his journals are found inside one of the bis poles, Zelda is tasked with finding out more about the man’s last days and his connection to these ritual objects.
Zelda is pulled into a world of shady anthropologists, headhunters, missionaries, art collectors, and smugglers – where the only certainty is that sins of the past are never fully erased.
Join Zelda as she grapples with the anthropologist’s mysterious disappearance fifty years earlier, and a present-day murderer who will do anything to prevent her from discovering the truth.
Rituals of the Dead is now available as eBook and paperback on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.
Purchase Rituals of the Dead:
Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture inspires her on-going mystery series, the Adventures of Zelda Richardson. Her background in journalism, multimedia development and art history enriches her novels.
In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda gets entangled with a gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen his diamonds. The Lover’s Portrait is a suspenseful “whodunit?” about Nazi-looted artwork that transports readers to wartime and present-day Amsterdam. Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Rituals of the Dead, a thrilling artifact mystery set in Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands. Learn more about Jennifer and her books on her website: http://www.jennifersalderson.com/.
Instagram link: http://www.instagram.com/JSAauthor