"By Aeroplane to Pygmyland" Accounts of the 1926 Smithsonian-Dutch Expedition to New Guinea

Interpretive Essays

Browse Photos and Film

Expedition Source Material

About this Project

about this project

About this Project

This online publication, By Aeroplane to Pygmyland: Revisiting the 1926 Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea, aims to “revisit” a historically important scientific expedition from today’s perspective of 80 years later. It does this through interpretive essays accompanied by the publication, for the first time, of two expedition diaries by the American participants and a wealth of additional expedition records that had never before been published, including over 700 original photographs and about two hours of original film footage, in an annotated and inter-connected multimedia format allowing comparison among multiple sources.

The title of this publication is based on one of several variants of the title that Matthew Stirling (1896-1975), the head of the American side of the expedition, gave to his film-lecture tours from 1927 to 1932 (“By Aeroplane to Pygmyland”). Stirling’s title set modern technology (airplanes, motion pictures) in the most primitive and exotic of settings, reaffirming the wider collaborative projects of scientific advancement and collecting artifacts for the expanding national museums of both nations, America and the Netherlands. The expedition began small but grew to include over 400 participants including Dutch military officers and scientists, Ambonese soldiers, Dayak canoemen from Borneo, and Malay (Indonesian) convicts who served as carriers. They journeyed up the Mamberamo and its Rouffaer River tributary, then hiked upland to the so-called “pygmy” tribal areas of what is now called the Sudirman mountain range. This expedition was the first to use an airplane in the scientific exploration of New Guinea and also gave us some of the region's earliest film footage.

How to Use This Publication

Within this publication, the Interpretive Essays are self-standing, though they were written for sequential reading; so readers interested in one topic can go directly to that essay. In these essays, I attempt to outline why the publication of source materials like those presented here contributes to current issues in history and anthropology, and to suggest future valuable directions for this project. Most importantly, future updates should aim to include “missing” voices and perspectives in addition to the American records published at the launch of this online publication. Thus this publication should be considered part of a larger intended project for the integrated study and publication of other records and perspectives about this expedition. I emphasize especially the importance of studying and including Dutch records (which also have remained largely unpublished); and the likely value of making this information available to people in regions from which these records, images, and collections were obtained, in a way that will enhance our understanding of the documents and will give local people new access to records of their own history.

Readers may also choose to “Browse photos and film” – reviewing over 700 expedition photographs and about 2 hours of film footage from the expedition, organized in ways that relate them to the regions visited as described in the expedition journal texts. Or, they may go directly to “Expedition Source Material” where they may choose several formats in which to read critically annotated editions of the two American expedition diaries (journals), that of Matthew Stirling and Stanley Hedberg.

Producing By Aeroplane to Pgymyland

This online research publication is a joint production of the Smithsonian Institutions Libraries in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, with financial support from Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold.

The website was professionally designed and constructed by Martin Kalfatovic and staff of the New Media Office, Smithsonian Institution Libraries. The expert, meticulous, and incredibly patient archival editorial guidance of Christopher Lotis (Publications Director, Asian Cultural History Program, Smithsonian Institution) has been a source of admiration from everyone who works with him. His careful checking and correction of prior inaccurate or incomplete transcriptions, and his ability to place documents and images in the most meaningful context within a huge corpus of archival text and documents, provided our model for scholarly editing. Many others contributed to various aspects of the project (see Credits) including the search for and transcription of archival documents, preparation of illustrations and maps, preparation of photographic and film records, and suggestions for interpretation. I also thank the anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this publication for their expert suggestions.

Very special thanks are due to Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, particularly in the person of Dr. Jim Miller, whose longtime support of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) studies at the Smithsonian really made the research and publication of these 1926 expedition records possible. Finally, the ones most responsible for my interest in finding new ways to present these historic records are my many friends and acquaintances from my past research and film work in Papua and on Halmahera Island (west of New Guinea). Their fascination with any archival photos I managed to bring them about their ancestors convinced me that our historic records from this region must be shared.

This publication is to be released on November 16, 2006, at a symposium in Leiden, Netherlands, co-organized by the National Museum of Ethnology and the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden), and co-sponsored by the Papua Heritage Foundation and the Embassy of the United States of America to the Netherlands. The enthusiasm and encouragement of these organizations is sincerely appreciated. This symposium will surely lead to renewed interest in cooperatively re-assessing the scientific contributions of this historic expedition.

Paul Michael Taylor
Washington, DC, USA
November 15, 2006


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