Museum Mystery: What Happened to Michael Rockefeller?

A guide to the art he collected before disappearing forever

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Michael C. Rockefeller Wing is among the most impressive in what is one of the world's most extraordinary museums. Immediately adjacent to the Greek and Roman galleries, you go from a hall of art of white marble sculptures, vases, and mosaics that all seem vaguely familiar to what feels like another realm.

Giant, monstrous forms loom against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows facing Central Park. A painted ceiling hovers above long, carved crocodile shaped canoes. It's easy to feel like you've been transported to a fairy tale world.

The collection came to the Met in 1973 as a donation from the Rockefeller family. John D. Rockefeller funded the Met Cloisters in 1938, and Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller's collection of Asian art is also at the museum. But this collection was named for Michael C. Rockefeller, son of Governor and Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, who disappeared in 1961 while collecting art in Dutch New Guinea.

Michael had studied economics at Harvard but later decided to study with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In 1961 he joined an expedition to Dutch New Guinea where he intended to collect art on behalf of his family.

Four years earlier, his father had established the "Museum of Primitive Art" in the Rockefeller home on 54th Street. This was a significant collection of non-western art, which had been popular in Europe but was still unusual in the United States. Michael, at just 19-years old, had been named a board member. His decision to stay in New Guinea after the expedition was so that he could continue collecting art while learning more about Asmat culture.

Michael collected hundreds of items including bowls, shields, and spears. His most significant acquisition was four Bis poles which were used for funeral ceremonies and usually left to decompose, leaving their spiritual charge in the earth. The Asmat people had become addicted to tobacco during the Dutch occupation and he used this to trade and barter as he traveled to over thirteen villages in three weeks.

What happened next has been the subject of great speculation. It's known that Michael was in a boat, which took on water and that he abandoned in order to swim ashore. He tied two empty gasoline cans to his waist to help keep him afloat, but he would have had to swim ten miles against the current to reach land. Though this seems extremely difficult, he was 23-years old and known for being an exceptionally strong swimmer. But he was never seen again.

Dutch rescue crews scoured the island. Given the Rockefeller family's influence and ample resources, a major recovery effort took place. It was eventually assumed that he had drowned or had been eaten by sharks.

Rumors began to circulate that Michael had been eaten by cannibals. At that time, ritual headhunting was still a vital part of Asmat culture as a means to avenge the death. However, no bones of Rockefeller were ever recovered, nor were the gasoline cans he had tied to his waist or his signature thick frame glasses. 

In 1969, Nelson Rockefeller donated the collection from his Museum of Primitive Art to the Met. It was the first major collection of non-western art to be displayed in an encyclopedic collection in the United States and set a precedent for non-western art to be displayed under the same roof as classical, medieval, and Renaissance masterpieces.

The donation formed the core of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. A special wing named for Michael C. Rockefeller was built on the south side of the building to display his collection of art from New Guinea and serve as a testament to the passion he pursued to the end of his short life.

Today, the Rockefeller family officially recognizes Michael's death as a drowning though new evidence has come to light and was published in the 2014 book "Savage Harvest" by Carl Hoffman. The author explains how in 1961, the Dutch had enacted particularly strong rule over the island, and police officers had killed five elite Asmat's. Because all deaths need to be avenged in Asmat culture, it is possible that when Michael swam to shore, he was assumed by those who found him to be part of the "white tribe" of men who had killed the five Asmat's. If so, they would have ritually killed him, dismembered his body for consumption, and then used his bones as religious icons or ritual objects. 

Michael Rockefeller's death has been the subject of many stories and even plays. It's highly unlikely that after 50 years, any remains could turn up to provide sufficient evidence of how he died. But people interested in his legacy can enjoy the wing named for him at the Met, with extraordinary objects from that fateful trip, in a setting that evokes some of the wonders he must have felt during his expedition. 

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Bis Poles

Bis Poles in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing
Danielle Oteri

Four of the Bis Poles on display were collected by Michael Rockefeller. Bis Poles are made only in the Asmat region of southwest New Guinea and are created to be the focal points of a giant feast for the recently deceased. Each figure represents a specific person and serves as a reminder that their death must be avenged as all death is caused by war or magic. 

A traditional Bis feast would be held if several villagers had died, which would then be followed by a headhunting raid. Today Asmat people no longer practice warfare, so the feasts are only ceremonial. After a Bis feast, the poles are brought to the fields of sago palms, an important food source, and are left to decay, their supernatural power serving as fertilizer.

Each pole is carved from a single piece of wood. It contains the abstract portrait of the deceased person, other ancestors, and a phallus, which serves a fertility symbol. The lower portion often depicts a canoe to transport spirits to the afterlife. The base is pointed so that it can be inserted into the ground.

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Ritual drum

Chief Omas at The Met

Courtesy of The Met

Drums in Asmat culture are associated with the origin of human life. They are played at all ceremonies and are usually played only by men. Myths explain that man was born from wooden figures carved by a being named Fumeripits to ease his loneliness. As he drummed alone the figure came to life and became the first Asmat people.

Though drums are common objects in Asmat culture, they are often commissioned from master craftsmen who carve symbolic forms into the handles. 

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Body Mask

Body Mask from Michael C. Rockefeller wing
Danielle Oteri

These body masks were used in ceremonies for the recently dead. Dressed in the full-body masks, the dead and the living were ritually joined. They could travel throughout the village, eat together, and then depart from each other to safely enter the realm of the ancestors.

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Spirit Canoe

Spirit Canoe

Courtesy of The Met

These canoes are also ceremonial and used in the initiation of boys into manhood. Boys are secluded in a ritual house and then asked to emerge one-by-one by crawling across the canoe placed outside the house's door. They are considered men after they cross over and are then cut with design patters which heal into symbolic scars. The spirit canoe is discarded at the end of the ceremony.

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Kwoma Ceiling

Hand painted Kwoma ceiling at The Met
Danielle Oteri

Though it was not collected by Michael Rockefeller, the Kwoma Ceiling is the focal point of the Wing, which was re-installed in 2007. The ceiling is often the first thing that captures the attention of first-time visitors. At 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, the ceremonial ceiling is made of 270 paintings commissioned from Kwoma artists in the 1970s. Though they are contemporary pieces, they represent ancient art traditions of the Kwoma people of New Guinea.

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