Asmat and Museum History

Asmat History

Oral Traditions

As in almost all Pacific societies, before Western contact, the Asmat recorded and passed down their history through oral traditions, which recorded events from the earliest era of creation to the present day. Placing the events described in oral tradition within Western historical frameworks and chronologies is often problematic. However, oral traditions remain important both as the region's indigenous histories and also in providing essential documentation in contemporary issues of land tenure.

Western Historical Accounts of the Asmat

The Asmat region remained largely isolated from the wider world until the early decades of the twentieth century when Dutch colonial officials first entered the area. However, the earliest historical account of European contact with the Asmat dates back to the seventeenth century when Dutch trader Jan Carstensz sailed past the coast in 1623.

Nearly a century and a half passed before the next known European explorer, the renowned British navigator Capt. James Cook, encountered the Asmat in 1770. Anchoring his ship, the HMS Endeavor, near the Casuarina Coast, members of Cook's expedition briefly went ashore, quickly returning to the ship when relations became hostile, as described in Cook's journal:

"I went ashore in the pinnace...but had not gone above 200 yards before we were attacked by 3 or 4 men who came out of the woods a little before us, but upon immediately firing upon them they retired;  finding that we could not search the country with any degree of safety we returned to the boat and [were] followed by 60 or as some thought about 100 of the natives who had advanced in small parties out of the woods…”[1]

The Dutch gained sovereignty over the western half of island of New Guinea in 1714 under the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht in which Spain relinquished its earlier claims to this land. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British managed Dutch colonies from 1811-1816. In 1826 a brief encounter took place between the Asmat and the Dutch explorer Kolff and, in 1828, the Dutch officially reclaimed sovereignty over the western part of New Guinea. In 1898 the Dutch created administrative posts at Fakfak and Manokwari. The first Dutch outpost in Asmat, called Agats, was created in 1938 on Flamingo Bay near the village of Syuru and Agats continues to be the main town and administrative center in the region today.

Scarcely three years later, with the outbreak of World War II the Dutch abandoned the outpost when the Japanese invaded New Guinea. Following the war, some areas of Asmat became unstable and people left their villages. Approximately 6,000 Asmat exiles went north into the Kamoro region. Here, the Dutch Catholic missionary Fr. Gerard Zegwaard, msc, encountered these Asmat regufees and was able to learn the Asmat language and begin communications. In 1949 Asmat refugees returned to their villages and, in 1953, the Dutch Mission of the Sacred Heart established a misison in Agats. The following year, the Dutch government returned and resestablished their colonial outpost. Dutch missionaries gradually left the archipelago in the years following Indonesia's independence from the Netherlands. In Asmat they were replaced by missionaries from the American Crosier Fathers and Brothers beginning in 1958.

In 1962 the Dutch abandoned their claims to what had been Dutch New Guinea and the Indonesian government took over administration of western New Guinea. In the 1960s the Indonesian authorities attempted to ban critical elements of Asmat culture. The Asmat were told to curtail their ceremonial activities and their associated carvings. The ceremonial houses (yeu) where people gathered to hold religious ceremonies and discuss significant communal matters were burned and many Asmat artworks were destroyed. Government opposition to Asmat cuture and art was strongest from 1964 to 1968. As this opposition began to lift, the Crosier missionaries began encouraging the Asmat to revive their carving and celebrations.

The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress and the American Museum of Asmat Art

In 1973, the Diocese of Agats, under the leadership of Bishop Alphonse Sowada, osc, opened the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress (Museum Kebudayaan dan Kemajuan Asmat) in Agats, which continues to the present day. In addition to preserving and exhibiting Asmat art, the museum functions as a place where ideas can be exchanged and leadership skills honed. The museum's first Asmat curator was Yufenius Biaki in 1982, who later described how he sees the museum functioning:

Local visitors of the museum are the Asmat themselves; Asmat youth are especially interested. They represent the future generations and hope of the Asmat culture and people. Therefore, it is our great expectation that they should be willing and eager to come and browse through the museum. This will enable them to breathe the cultural atmosphere and to absorb it so that eventually they can mold the art of their ancestors into their own expression of art...Since Asmat known internationally, currently more and more people from other places arrive to do research into the Asmat mind set and culture. This can only be realized if there is a good management and maintenance of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress. Thus, aside from beging a storehouse for fine arts as well as a recreational place, the museum serves as a heritage of [the] Asmat's spiritual culture and as an educational facility.”[2]


In addition to founding the museum, in 1981 Sowada and the other Crosier missionaries established an annual carving competition and auction of Asmat art, now known as the Pesta Budaya Asmat, which continues to this day and allows artists to sell their works directly to non-Asmat buyers.

At the same time that they were collecting works for the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, the Crosiers formed a second collection of Asmat art that was sent back to the United States to what was initially called the Crosier Asmat Museum, which opened in 1975 at the Crosier monastery in Hastings, Nebraska. In 2000 the monastery closed and the museum's collection was transferred to the Crosier headquarters in Shoreview, Minnesota where it was renamed the American Museum of Asmat Art. When it became necessary to close the Shoreview facility in 2007, the Crosiers, wishing to place the collection in a setting where it would be used to educate students and the public about Asmat art and culture, gave it to the University of St. Thomas where it became the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas. The museum's Gallery in the Anderson Student Center on the University's Saint Paul campus opened in 2012.



[1] Capt. James Cook, 1770, quoted from Beaglehole, J.C. (ed.). The Voyage of the Endeavor 1768 – 1771, Hakluyt Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955, pp. 408-9.

[2] Biakai, Yufentius.  “The Asmat Museum: Why So Important,” In Konrad, Ursula, Alphonse Sowada, and Gunter Konrad (eds.). Asmat: Perception of Life in Art. Moenchengladbach, Germany: B. Kuhlen Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, 2002, p. 66.