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About the Collection: History

The Museum of Anthropology Batak Collection was made by Professor Harley Harris Bartlett (1886-1960) in Sumatra during two separate visits in 1918 and 1927.

In 1918, Bartlett, who was then assistant professor of Botany at the University of Michigan, first went to Indonesia as an employee of the U.S. Rubber Company, which had hired him to develop high yield strains of rubber at one of their subsidiary plantations in Kisaran, Sumatra, Indonesia. During his year-long stay, Bartlett made an extensive botany collection (still housed in the University of Michigan Herbarium and Matthaei Botanical Gardens) for the University. Entranced by Batak culture, Bartlett also pursued what he referred to as "amateur ethnologizing" among the Batak communities of northern Sumatra (Bartlett diary, June 9, 1918). Bartlett returned to the region in 1927, on a botanical collecting mission for the Smithsonian Institution and University of Michigan.


Pagar, # 48646

Collected by Bartlett in Asahan, Sumatra

Bartlett arrived in the region during a time of dramatic change. Islam had arrived in northern Sumatra in the early 19th century with Christian missions coming to the region a few decades later. Religious conversions to both of these faiths led to a decline in the use and importance of traditional Batak writing practices. And by the early 20th century, Dutch colonial authorities were expanding their influence in the region, creating new plantation economies to meet increasing global demands for rubber placing additional pressures on Batak communities. Bartlett quickly became interested in learning about Batak cultural practices and their indigenous manuscripts; and with his two assistants, Bidin and Tigor, began to document and acquire a broad assemblage of objects and manuscripts, eager to preserve a literary tradition that was rapidly disappearing. Along with acquiring original manuscripts, Bartlett also solicited paper copies of texts that people were unwilling to part with. The University of Michigan collections contains examples of these paper documents.

Bartlett described some of his interactions and acquisitions in his diary. Traveling in a remote area south of Asahan, on July 11, 1918, he wrote:

"A little more diplomacy resulted in the production of old Batak sticks, bamboo manuscripts, which I could not persuade them to part with, although they were ashamed to have them (being good Muslims)."

"On the way home we passed Ayer Toloek, the point for departure for Djoema Sidjaboet, the home of Jadi Bata. ... he is a physician and priest to the pagans ... He made two copies of part of his manuscript, but only a fraction of what he has. I suspect he was limited by the amount of paper he could afford to buy. I should like to have it all, but suspect that some of my bark manuscripts contain the same material."

And, in reporting the purchase of a kris or carved knife used by Batak chiefs, he wrote:

"Of course I offered to pay for it, and offered a price that must have seemed very large to him. He refused, however, saying that it was a poesaka or heirloom, and that it would be very bad medicine to part with it. So I said nothing more. At night he came to me and said that only upon one condition would it be luck to part with a poesaka, namely if it were to become a peringatan or memento of a friend, and then there must be no mention of money in the transaction! Furthermore, he had decided that his knife was a peringatan, no longer poesaka, and that I must have it, but only on condition that whenever I saw it in America, I would think of him." (Bartlett diary, May 28, 1918).

The power that texts and other objects could hold for the Batak was further illustrated in a diary entry from June 15, 1918:

"Bidin has malarial fever, and is very certain that he incurred the displeasure of the hantu [spirits] of one of the bark manuscripts that he bought from Boentoe Panei, that the hantu has invaded him, and that he is likely to die."

Over the course of his two trips to Sumatra, Harley Bartlett acquired approximately 2000 bark texts and inscribed bamboos, of which 155 are in the Museum of Anthropology collection. Scholarly work on this collection includes (Voorhoeve 1979, 1980) and the publication of a love lament by Uli Kozok in Kozok 2003. The rest of the texts remain unpublished and are awaiting additional scholarly study. For more information please contact Curator Carla Sinopoli at

Additional Bartlett Batak manuscript collections are held by the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.