Tag Archives: museums

Oregon: Where Past is Present

Stone lamp from interior Oregon with inset eyes of abalone shell. Source: OMNCH.

The Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History has some very nice exhibits and it looks like their underlying collections are superb.  Their online photo-gallery “Oregon: Where Past is Present” is some pretty nice eye-candy, though I would love to see them give a little more information about each piece.  The sculptural lamp above is simply superb.

So-called "wealth blade" made of flaked obsidian, length 25 cm. Source: OMNCH

Lousy conservation at the Vancouver Museum?

Shoddy conservation of magnificent petroglyph boulder at the Vancouver Museum. Screenshot from VM website.

For some reason mistreatment of rock art just makes me spitting mad.  I posted the other day about a magnificent petroglyph boulder that was removed from its home on the central Fraser River near Lillooet in 1926.  Bad enough that this work of art was ripped from its setting to be a curio in an urban park.  Petroglyphs are not ornaments for your outdoor rock garden any more than they are lifestyle amenities deployed as advertising copy, even if you are a museum.

Now my spies tell me that this petroglyph boulder was moved to the Vancouver Museum in 1992.  Pictures of the boulder on the VM website show it to be in absolutely appalling shape.  It is covered with moss, the designs are visibly eroded and faint, there are signs of exfoliation, and the large crack seen in 1926 seems to be getting larger.   The Vancouver Museum appears to be keeping this treasure in a damp, shady, spot in the outdoors (as they say, it is in a “lower level garden courtyard”) and there is no sign of any attention to basic, fundamental conservation responsibilities. They even have the gall to note in their website description “Today archaeologists are reluctant to reveal the locations of petrogylphs, lest they be disturbed.”  Well I am revealing the location of this petroglyph, which is being disturbed by careless curation!

Seriously: this boulder is one of only a few petroglyphs from that part of the province, where pictographs are much more common.  It was in pristine condition in 1926.  Now it is a moss-ridden crumbling mess.  This boulder is a cultural masterpiece.  It is a provincial treasure.  It is a national treasure.  It is of international significance.  And yet it is being absolutely neglected by a leading cultural institution.  Imagine an Emily Carr painting being treated so poorly.  Imagine a Bill Reid sculpture  treated so shabbily.  It would never happen.  Yet this boulder is as important, is MORE important, and is consigned to rot away metres from state of the art curatorial facilities which are being devoted to white leather pant suits (!!).  It is astonishing to me that they put this boulder on the web at all, suggesting that they don’t see a problem and are therefore unworthy to be in possession of it.  They should make arrangements immediately to have it transferred to a suitable institution or have it returned to its original setting, in what I take to be St’at’imc territory

Vancouver Museum, you have a responsibility of professional stewardship.  Are you living up to it?

Note the eroded engravings and extensive moss/algae cover. Source: VM website screenshot.

The boulder in the early 1930s, soon after it was brought to Stanley Park. Note the crispness of the designs and the lack of moss.

Even more on the Wilson Duff – SGang Gwaay Musical

Haida House and pole. Source: Duff and Kew, 1957.

A month or two ago I made several posts (1 , 2, 3) about a forthcoming musical called Beyond Eden, which tells the story of the 1957 expedition to ‘rescue’ poles from the Haida Town of SGang Gwaay (PDF).

I notice The Tyee has a very good overview of this musical (which opens tonight) including some comments from Roy Jones Sr. of Skidegate, last seen on this blog as a young man climbing poles in 1957 CBC archival footage.  Says The Tyee:

Now in his mid-80s, he is reflective about the experience, having enjoyed the physical work and the company of members of the crew — but about cutting the poles? “It didn’t feel right,” he said. However, the Skidegate Band Council had approved the work and many felt it was the right thing to do. Further to that, Jones was on a recent trip to The Chicago Field Museum and saw one of the poles taken from Skedans (an expedition he was also on). “If they hadn’t taken it at that time, it would have been ruined, I think,” he said.

It is good to see some Haida perspective on both the events of 1957 and on this musical.  I also didn’t realize Nathalie at the Qay museum was a student of Wilson Duff’s — I’ll have to buy her a coffee and pump her for stories next time I am up on the islands. It’s a good article — The Tyee is doing some of the best journalism in BC right now.

Poster for "Beyond Eden" musical. Click to buy tickets; scroll down for title song.

Shipwrecks of Vancouver Island

The three-masted ship Carelmapu with decks awash, dragging her anchors into Schooner Cove, near Tofino, in 1915

The ‘Virtual Museum of Canada”  has been responsible for some nice online exhibits, although a lot of these are now fairly dated.  One with what we could call a “retro web design”, but some good content, is the Shipwrecks of Vancouver Island site, apparently put together mainly on the watch of the Maritime Museum of BC with help from the Underwater Archaeological Society of BC.  There are some nice videos of underwater archaeology, and other informative materials.

Site navigation, though, is much easier if you just go to the site map here — the absurdly finicky navigation does weird things like, say, means using the back button always takes you to a splash introduction screen — is a crime against the web.  Especially since museum people are involved: why such disdain for solid future-proof web design values?  This page, for example, has a nifty slider to scroll through an interactive map: but if you don’t pay attention (e.g., if you use your back button) you will always end up on a “loading XML – introduction to the database” overlay screen page which gets tired after about the third time.  The VMC should consider a legacy fund to make sure that the sites which they poured money into for a while can all be kept up to date for both content and also compliance or at least ease of use.  It would not surprise me in the slightest if the VMC had spent over $100,000 on this site — the one site of their I know something about they spent $140,000 and it is no flashier than this thing.  Almost all that money went into design and mounting of content, very little went to the content creators themselves.  If that  applied here, I think we have a right to expect more – is this site design worth $100,000?  It seems to me that, even in 2004, a competent web designer working alone, with content given by others, could have put this together in about a month.

Canadian Navy diver goes overboard in 1959 to examine the 1853 wreck of the Lord Western, near Flores Island.

Speaking of Wilson Duff and Bill Reid

Roy Jones of Skidegate climbs a pole at SGang Gwaay. Source: CBC.

Yesterday I noted the upcoming musical about the Bill Reid-Wilson Duff expedition to “rescue” carved poles at the Haida Village of SGang Gwaay (Ninstints).  I’ve just found that the CBC has posted online a short documentary, (2013:edit, use this link)  first broadcast in 1959 and narrated by Bill Reid, showing the removal of these poles to the Museum of Anthropology at UVIC.  The expedition also included Wayne Suttles and Michael Kew, as well as Wilson Duff of course.  The Haida crew consisted of Roy Jones, Clarence Jones and Frank Jones of Skidegate. Some aspects of the trip are recounted in the BC Provincial Museum Annual Report of 1957, which I will scan and post some other day.

The spoken component of the documentary is a fascinating account by Reid, at that time just beginning his carving career, but the real jaw-dropping element is the depiction of the use of axes and saws and climbing spikes to log this forest of poles.  Necessary, of course, but jarring nonetheless.

Broadcast Date: May 21, 1959

A small boat ferrying Bill Reid and a team of anthropologists approaches the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Reid documents the rescue mission to salvage and relocate the last of the crumbling Haida totems as revealed in this CBC documentary. With a sense of excited urgency, Reid describes and catalogues the enormous poles on the approaching shore. As they are gently felled, the majestic cultural landmarks will creak and groan before they are prepared for transport.

It’s low resolution and grainy, but the general impression is a very powerful one.

Felling a tree, surely, not a pole at SGang Gwaay. Source: CBC.

dSpace: The Indian History Film Project

Haida Town of Chaatl. Source: NMC

There is an interesting archive of interview transcripts housed in dSpace at the University of Regina.  Most of the interviews were by CBC Radio’s Imbert Orchard and so share the flaws of Journalism and Anthropology.   The preamble says,

The original intent of The Indian History Film Project was to conduct interviews with First Nations elders across Canada and to produce a television series portraying Canadian history from a First Nations’ perspective.

The Indian History Film Project was an initiative of Direction Films and was conceived and developed by Tony Snowsill. The project leaders were Tony Snowsill and Christine Welsh. The project evolved over time, and eventually it was decided to access libraries and archives across the country to incorporate existing interviews with First Nations elders. All interviews, whether original or archival, were cross indexed by word and theme and housed in the C.P.R.C [Canadian Plains Research Centre].

A number of these interviews are with Haida people, notably Solomon Wilson and Florence Edenshaw, who discussed her arranged marriage, the meaning of Tow Hill, and the artistic tradition of her family, the Edenshaws and Davidsons.  It appears tapes of these are also available through the BC Archives, but not online.

Note: anytime you see (Indian) it means that a Haida word was not transcribed — an eerie effect.  Searching for British Columbia brings up 91 documents.

The following excerpt from an interview with Solomon Wilson of Skidegate sees him relating a tale of smallpox blankets:

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La Brea Woman: Image Controversy

La Brea Woman forensic reconstruction.

I came across this interesting article chronicling an emerging controversy in Los Angeles.  I never knew that human remains had been found in the La Brea tar pits, but a partial skeleton of a young female had been on display until recently in the George C. Page Museum there.  At some point, a museum  volunteer made forensic-style reconstructive drawings of this young woman.  Now the museum is trying to prevent their publication, a move which some claim is designed to help prevent their repatriation.

Are illustrations of human remains tantamount to display of the human remains themselves?  Is the display of a cast any different?  The forensic reconstructionist apparently used the cast, not the actual skull. But consider the process of making a cast: is not that a greater insult to the dead than merely handling their bones would be?  In any case, these forensic reconstructions contain a little too much interpretive latitude: consider the Kennewick man reconstruction whose resemblance to Patrick Stewart has done nothing to quell the notion Kennewick man was ‘Caucasian’. Further, the forensic reconstructions include disturbing “cutaways” revealing the reconstructive process and producing an otherworldly, inhuman appearance (see below).

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