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About this Exhibit

In the early 20th century, University of Michigan Professor Harley Harris Bartlett (1886-1960) traveled to Sumatra, Indonesia to conduct botanical research and collect specimens for the University of Michigan Herbarium and Smithsonian Institution. Over two visits in 1918 and 1927, Bartlett became fascinated by the indigenous Batak people who inhabit the uplands mountains of northern Sumatra. This fascination led Bartlett to become, as he called himself, an "amateur anthropologist," and he and his local collaborators visited Batak villages, meeting with priests and elders and learning about Batak religion, economy, and social life.

Bartlett was particularly intrigued by the indigenous writing system of the Bataks. Knowledge of writing in this distinctive script was limited to religious practitioners. Religious and magical texts, love poems, calendars, and other texts were carved into bamboo and bone and written on bark paper. In addition, when owners were unwilling to part with their original manuscripts, Bartlett sometimes asked them to copy the texts on to lined paper. In all, he collected approximately 2000 Batak manuscripts. 155 of these texts are in the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology collections and described in this exhibit.


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