Anthropology, Collecting, and Ethics at the De Young Museum

Historical Essay

by Kristin Wong

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Figure 1. Photograph of an art gallery in the Stanford family mansion, taken by Eadweard Muybridge.

Source:, image 95

Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum is a testament to San Francisco’s history of exploiting world cultural treasures. The museum originated as part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, which showcased “exotic” artifacts and people, aiming to present San Francisco as an imperial city. Today, the de Young Museum continues to illustrate this trend, as demonstrated by the recent controversies surrounding the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art. The museum’s display of art designated as national cultural property of Papua New Guinea, as well as the barriers to repatriation, ultimately illustrate the consequences of cultural imperialism.

Throughout history, there have been numerous global controversies regarding the exploitation of world artifacts. From the perspective of acquiring nations, cities, and museums, amassing and displaying “exotic” art of other countries promotes their cultural reputations. On the other hand, many countries of origin regard their antiquities as national treasures, often claiming that their exploitative removal is a form of theft or cultural imperialism.(1) Cultural imperialism describes a culture of a large and powerful country or organization having a dominating influence on one that is less powerful (2)—this idea is illustrated by an imperial power that removes and retains art treasures from an impoverished or marginalized population.(1)

One prominent example of art exploitation is the Louvre’s collection of Egyptian frescoes, which were allegedly stolen from a 3,200-year-old tomb in Egypt.(3) In response to pressure from the Egyptian government to repatriate the disputed works, the Paris museum returned them to Egypt in 2009.(3) Furthermore, in 1912, American archaeologist Hiram Bingham III excavated thousands of artifacts from the ruins of Machu Picchu, which were then housed in Yale University’s Peabody Museum for nearly 100 years.(4) These cultural treasures were at the “center of a long and bitter custody battle between the government of Peru and Yale University” that ended when the university finally agreed to return them to Peru in 2010.(5)

Similar to these cases, San Francisco has a history of cultural imperialism, as demonstrated by the elites’ collection of world treasures. Around the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, San Francisco viewed itself as an imperial city that would eventually govern the Pacific.(6) During the following decades, wealthy, white families in San Francisco amassed world cultural treasures to show the importance of the city.(7) Railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, his wife Jane, and their son Leland Jr. lived in a Nob Hill mansion completed in 1877—their home was “intended for public gaze” and contained “music rooms, libraries, and art galleries [that] offered desirable emblems of art and culture” collected during the family’s world travels (Figure 1).(7) This trend has taken on a new importance in the present age, when tourism is one of San Francisco’s major industries and people are willing to pay significant amounts of money to consume the city’s culture and image.(8) The de Young Museum—both its past and its present—embodies San Francisco’s participation in the global trend to exploit and showcase the treasures of “exotic” cultures.

Origins of the de Young Museum

Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum originated as the Fine Arts Building, which was built for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894.(9) Michael H. de Young, chair of the exposition organizing committee and co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle, believed that the exposition would reap great economic and social benefits for San Francisco.(10) Since the fair was the first American international exposition held west of Chicago, it was an opportunity to showcase San Francisco to local, national, and international audiences.(10) de Young and the rest of the exposition’s organizers, who were comprised of the city’s political, economic, and intellectual elite, ultimately wanted to present a worldly image of San Francisco as “the jewel in the crown of western expansion.”(10)

The architecture of the California Midwinter International Exposition exploited other cultures to convey San Francisco as a culturally imperialistic city. For instance, the architecture of the Fine Arts Building was Egyptian, as demonstrated by its pyramidal entrance surrounded by large columns and its exterior that was heavily embellished by Egyptian and Assyrian figures (Figure 2).(11) Most of the other buildings at the fair had an “Orientalist” style, which not only conveyed San Francisco as “The Imperial City of the West,” but also expressed a “more aggressive and targeted imperial position” of the United States.(10) According to Barbara Berglund, the exposition represented the United States as “a force actively reaching out toward and desiring dominance over Asia and Latin America” by way of San Francisco, “its far Western commercial, financial, and military outpost.”(10)

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Figure 2. The Fine Arts Building of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.


Another aspect of the de Young Museum’s exploitative origins is the midwinter exposition’s showcase of not only world artifacts (e.g., Fine Arts Building), but also “primitive” peoples. For the curiosity and entertainment of visitors, various ethnic and racial groups from across the world, including Dahomeyan Africans (Figure 3), Egyptians, Javanese, and Arabs, were put on display.(12,13) While these ethnological exhibits were ideally meant to educate the public about non-Western civilization and present a worldly image of San Francisco, they had many negative consequences—the individuals on display were often viewed as specimens or freaks, and their exoticized portrayals were usually stereotypical or racist.(13)

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Figure 3. An ethnological exhibit showcasing a Dahomeyan African village at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.


After the exposition ended, the Fine Arts Building was established as the Memorial Museum for the people of San Francisco.(14) Renamed in honor of de Young thirty years later, the museum is formally known as the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and pays tribute to his intentions to portray a cultivated image of San Francisco.(14)

The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art

Today, the de Young Museum continues to exemplify San Francisco’s exploitative collection and exhibition of world cultural treasures. This trend is represented by the museum’s world-renowned, yet highly controversial Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art.(15) Introduced in 2005, the Jolika Collection is a promised gift from healthcare entrepreneur John Friede and his wife Marcia that is named after their children, John, Lisa, and Karen (Figure 4).(16) Like the Stanford family, the Friedes used their large fortune to collect “exotic” art and antiquities—while a form of exploitation, donating these items to the museum was intended to promote the cultural reputation of San Francisco. Containing 3,000 objects amassed from New Guinea over the last forty years, the Jolika Collection is considered “the best collection of [New Guinea] art in private hands”(17) and “the country’s leading center for the study and preservation of New Guinea Art.”(18) Approximately 400 pieces are currently on view at the de Young Museum,(16) including carved figures, ritual masks, musical instruments, and adorned human skulls (Figure 5).(17,18)

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Figure 4. John and Marcia Friede gifted the Jolika Collection to the de Young Museum.


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Figure 5. The Jolika Collection includes this male figure made by the people of New Guinea, dated between 1280 and 1400.


While the introduction of the Jolika Collection was greeted with acclaim and excitement, discordance and controversy over the exploitation of artifacts erupted a few months later.(19) The de Young’s unveiling of the collection prompted anthropologists to recognize some of the tribal artifacts (18)—Barry Craig, an Australian anthropologist and curator at the National Museum in Papua New Guinea from 1980 to 1983,(20) claimed that at least nine of the objects were on a list deemed the national cultural property of Papua New Guinea.(21) One of the items in question was a pigment-stained wooden mask from the Middle Sepik River region, which was carbon dated to AD 650 to 780 and is the oldest wooden artifact on display (Figure 6).(18,22) Without the required permit, these objects should have remained in Papua New Guinea, suggesting that they were illegally exported.(18) Furthermore, other pieces in the Jolika Collection can supposedly be traced back to global trade networks, in which misappropriated items are sold to antiquities dealers.(22)

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Figure 6. Wooden mask from the Middle Sepik River region, which was carbon dated to AD 650 to 780. One of the items suspected to be national cultural property of Papua New Guinea, this mask is the oldest wooden artifact of the Jolika Collection on display.

Source: Dalton, Rex. "Guinea Experts Cry Foul on Tribal Exhibits." Nature 440 (2006): 722-3. Print.

No accusations of looting were made against the Friedes, who had purchased the artifacts from international dealers and did not export them from Papua New Guinea themselves.(18) In fact, John Friede had only traveled to Papua New Guinea once in 1981.(19) Friede also claimed he had “no idea” how the objects under scrutiny left the country and was unaware that they were designated as national cultural property when he purchased them.(18) Due to the lack of chain-of-ownership information on the pieces called into question, exactly when and how these items left Papua New Guinea remains unclear.

Like other battles over allegedly stolen works at other museums, the issue revolving around the Jolika Collection posed a moral dilemma—according to Craig, being “in receipt of stuff that’s been illegally exported…can’t be okay by anybody’s standards.”(18) However, this issue was particularly complex because “the case of Papua New Guinea’s cultural property illuminate[d] the evolution of art world ethics with a Third World twist.”(18) During the time of the dilemma, the nation was (and continues to be) very impoverished, with little economic means or international power to fight for its lost property—in 2005, the GDP per capita of Papua New Guinea was $799.42, while that of the United States was $44,307.92 (in current United States dollars).(23) In light of the massive discrepancy in power, the Friedes’ and the de Young Museum’s exploitative acquisition of art treasures from Papua New Guinea is a form of cultural imperialism.

At the peak of the controversy, Papua New Guinea’s ambassador to the United States, Evan Paki, suggested that the safe confines of San Francisco would be beneficial.(18) There was significant concern about whether the National Museum would have enough funds to properly secure and care for the objects.(22) Paki also expressed appreciation that the Friedes rescued artifacts from private collections where they “would never see the light of day” (21) and credited them with advancing society’s understanding of Papua New Guinea heritage and art through their collection and research.(19) However, National Museum Acting Director Simon Poraituk stated that the nine pieces in the Jolika Collection were national cultural property and that he wanted the exploited items returned.(18) Similarly, decades before the introduction of the Jolika Collection to the de Young Museum, former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea Michael Somare expressed a sense of nationalism and ownership regarding the nation’s cultural treasures—in 1974, Somare stated, “We view our masks and art as living spirits with fixed abodes. It is not right they should be stored in New York, Paris, Bonn or elsewhere.”(22) John Buchanan, former director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the de Young Museum, responded to the dilemma by stating that the de Young Museum did not collect illegally exported material to the best of his knowledge.(18) Buchanan claimed that even though Papua New Guinea officials collaborated with the museum to prepare the Jolika Collection exhibition, it was not apparent in the curators’ research of the artifacts that any were on the national cultural property list (18)—in fact, during the peak of the dispute, the curators still did not know whether an official list existed, and also noted that the National Museum only shared partial documentation (i.e., some scanned documents, photographs) with them.(21) The highly obscure nature of this list is further demonstrated by its lack of accessibility on the Internet or through a database.

Like other battles over allegedly stolen works at museums, the country of origin is ultimately responsible for enforcement and all requests for repatriation. During the peak of this situation, the National Museum was struggling from “poor management, scarce resources and soaring crime” in its surrounding area (18)—this, in addition to the obscurity of the national cultural property list, led Paki to write a letter to Buchanan and Poraituk in 2006 stating that the appropriate circumstances did not exist for repatriation at that time.(18,20) During the following years, the entire collection remained in the hands of the de Young Museum, ultimately a result of cultural imperialism and disparity of power.

After its introduction to the de Young Museum, the Jolika Collection continued to provoke heated dispute revolved around its ownership. In 2005, the death of John Friede’s mother, sister of publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg, prompted an inheritance feud between Friede and his brothers Robert Friede and Thomas Jaffe, who also laid claim to the art.(24) Sotheby’s laid claim to the collection, too, for the auction house had previously loaned John and Marcia Friede $25 million to help amass the collection, which had not been repaid yet.(25) In 2007, John and Marcia Friede settled with Friede’s brothers, agreeing to pay them $30 million and put the Jolika Collection up as collateral. Three years later, Friede paid his brothers nearly $24 million—the remaining $6 million was paid in several sources, including proceeds from the sale of works not housed at the museum and a portion of a $4 million payment from his mother’s estate to pay for upkeep and promotion of the Jolika Collection.(25) To pay off the Friedes’ debt to Sotheby’s, 29 of the nearly 400 pieces on display at the museum were sold by the auction house.(25) However, most of the artifacts still remain at the de Young Museum today.

In response to the legal disputes over the Jolika Collection, Papua New Guinea’s former Minister for Culture and Tourism, Charles Abel, expressed concern about auctioning off parts of it—in a 2010 letter to Buchanan, Abel wrote, “As far as our government is concerned, [the nine objects that are national cultural property] have been illegally exported from Papua New Guinea and remain the property of our country but [are to be] held in trust by the de Young Museum until further notice.”(26) Shortly after, Abel, Buchanan, the Friedes, and other museum officials made an agreement that committed both American and Papua New Guinean parties to preserving the Jolika Collection, recognized Sotheby’s claim on a part of the collection, and acknowledged the Papua New Guinea government’s claim to the nine objects that are national cultural property—six of which currently reside in the de Young Museum.(27) Further, American and Papua New Guinean parties pledged to jointly raise funds to buy out the Friedes’ remaining debt to Sotheby’s (27)—the act of an impoverished nation helping to bail out the debts incurred by the Friedes, a super-wealthy family in San Francisco who was once in illegal possession of art works from that nation, demonstrates how cultural imperialism has enabled San Francisco to exploit world artifacts.

Recently, the government of Papua New Guinea expressed that it was pleased the Jolika Collection was intact and in the de Young Museum’s hand for public display.(26) This sentiment is encompassed by Abel’s statement that the nation is “grateful for the efforts of John Friede and the de Young Museum in preserving the collection, some of which were collected in the 1800s and may otherwise have deteriorated and been lost for forever.”(27) The origins of the de Young Museum as part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, as well as the present-day controversies surrounding the Jolika Collection, ultimately represent San Francisco’s exploitation of world cultural treasures as a means of promoting itself as an imperial city.

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The new DeYoung Museum, rising out of the fog, February 2007.

Photo: Chris Carlsson


1. Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. 1996. 312. Print. 2. Cambridge Dictionary. "Definition of ‘cultural imperialism.’" 2017. Web. 3. BBC News. "France’s Louvre museum returns five frescoes to Egypt." December 14 2009. Web. 4. Karp-Toledo, Elaine. "The Lost Treasure of Machu Picchu."' The New York Times, February 23 2008. Web. 5. Orson, Diane. "Yale Returns Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru." December 15 2010. Web. 6. Brechin, Grey. "Preface to the 2007 Edition." Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. 2007. xxi-xxiii. Print. 7. Grier, Katherine. "The ‘Blending and Confusion’ of Expensiveness and Beauty: Bourgeois Interiors." The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. 2010. 87-98. Print. 8. Forbes. "San Francisco, CA." 2017. Web. 9. Whiting, Sam. "The de Young Museum: a timeline history." October 9 2015. Web. 10. Berglund, Barbara. "California Midwinter Fair of 1894: An Orientalist Exposition." 2007. Web. 11. Goss, Gary, and Walter Biller. "Architecture of the Midwinter Fair." n.d. Web. 12. Jacknis, Ira, Snead, James, and Donald McVicker. Coming of Age in Chicago. 2016. 63-64. Print. 13. Silver, Mae. "Racism at Golden Gate Park’s 1894 Midwinter Fair. n.d. Web. 14. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "History of the de Young Museum." 2017. Web. 15. Hellmich, Christina. "New Guinea Art." Art on View. 2006. 66-75. Print. 16. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "The Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art." 2017. Web. 17. Cotter, Holland. "City by the Bay to Get a Trove of Oceanic Art." The New York Times, February 6 2005. Web. 18. Romney, Lee. "The De Young Dilemma." Los Angeles Times, June 3 2006. Web. 19. Mackenzie, Margaret. "Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, De Young Museum (Review)." The Contemporary Pacific19.1 (2007): 345-51. Print. 20. Egloff, Brian. "Confusion: "to Mix-Up in the Mind"." Bones of the Ancestors: The Ambum Stone: From the New Guinea Highlands to the Antiquities Market to Australia. United Kingdom: AltaMira Press, 2008. 158-171. Print. 21. Hamlin, Jesse. "How de Young is handling New Guinea art question." SFGate. May 4 2006. Web. 22. Dalton, Rex. "Guinea Experts Cry Foul on Tribal Exhibits." Nature 440 (2006): 722-3. Print. 23. Google. "GDP per capita (current US$)." February 6 2017. Web. 24. Coté, John. "Inheritance fight imperils de Young tribal art." SFGate. September 20 2008. Web. 25. Coté, John. "Deal assures S.F. keeps most of disputed art." SFGate. April 14 2010. Web. 26. Coté, John. "New Guinea concerned over de Young art sale." SFGate. June 6 2010. Web. 27. Solomon, Sinclaire. "Rare PNG artifacts to come home." The National. June 25 2010. Web.

Suggested Resources

Matier, Phillip, and Andrew Ross. "War drums pound over de Young display." SFGate. April 24 2006. Web.

Taylor, Kate. "A Collection of Tribal Art is Embroiled in a Modern Family Feud." The New York Times, October 5 2008. Web.

Coté, John. "de Young selling tribal art as family squabbles." SFGate. April 22 2009. Web.