Borneo Odyssey – a “Live from the Archives” performance

October 1, 2014

Before a house in Borneo. Penn Museum image 16273
Before a house in Borneo. Photograph by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.; hand-colored by Katharine Gordon Breed. Penn Museum image 16273

Early in September, during the HAIKU conference on Humanities and Science, the Penn Museum hosted a performance by Thai born visual artist Skowmon Hastanan, based on a collection of records from an early expedition to Borneo. Skowmon had been invited a year earlier to explore the archives to see if something sparked her creativity in an experiment in artistic use of primary source materials. She focused on the tinted glass lantern slides from what became known as the Furness, Harrison, and Hiller expedition to Borneo, 1896-1898. The expedition was a particularly colorful one, in which the three young men, all with connections to the University of Pennsylvania, traversed the globe in 1896, ending up in Sumatra and Borneo for a number of months.

William Henry Furness. Penn Museum image 139022
William Henry Furness.
Penn Museum image 139022

Aside from being extensively tattooed, the three also kept journals. But most interestingly to Skowmon, an obituary of Furness detailed his attempts to teach an orangutan to speak English.

Orangutan on the porch. Photograph by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.; hand-colored by Katharine Gordon Breed. Penn Museum image 216299
Orangutan on the porch. Penn Museum image 216299

Catching this as a point of interest, Skowmon, together with her creative team, including Joel Holub, came up with a performance piece in which the orangutan speaks as if reading from a “learned report” on the Borneo trip, originally presented by Hiller at the American Philosophical Society. Furness’ ghost, in period costume and a pith helmet, shares the stage as a counterpoint, going through the artifacts collected in Borneo (a number of which can be found in the online collections of the Museum), recreated for the stage in facsimile by the artists for the performance. At the end of the slide show, in the pitch dark Harrison auditorium, the artists passed the facsimile artifacts—including decorated skulls— out to the audience, with small personal lanterns for illumination. Together with the lush original score and live musical accompaniment, the performance set a mood that was well received by the audience, numbering over 200.

Though not purposely didactic, from one angle the meaning of the piece is a critique of the ethos of collecting, especially in the 19th century, as well as on scientific (or Western) views of other cultures and animals.

Performers included: Jeff Gottesfeld as Furness, Joel Holub as the orangutan, Eric Schnittke as the archivist/lantern slide projectionist, Skowmon Hastanan (artist in residence) as the assistant. Composer and pianist: Theodore Kersten, Stephen Gauci: Flute and clarinet. Stage assistants: Carmen Guzman y Lombert, Nina Simoneaux and Minou Pourshariati. Video and sound engineer: Katia Berg. Thanks are offered to the Events department, Tena Thomason and Rachelle Kaspin for their indispensable work, and to Alessandro Pezzati for his archival knowledge and support of the project, and to the Haiku conference and Dr. Beckman for her extensive support as well.
See also the previous post on the expedition slides of William Henry Furness III, Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and Hiram M. Hiller, by Senior Archivist Alessandro Pezzati