Sunday, 20 September 2015

Haida treasures in museums, Haida treasures on loan

This image shows the Star House frontal pole from Masset, Haida Gwaii, in the Pitt Rivers Museum last week, together with a projected digital image of the pole in situ before its removal from Masset. 

[Historic photograph PRM 1998.473.1, by Bertram Buxton. Masset, Haida Gwaii, 
Canada, 1882; image of photograph in Pitt Rivers Museum by Laura Peers]

Museum staff added the digital projector to the Clore Learning Balcony in the Museum’s main space some years ago, and we use this and other images when we have special events for tours, special lectures and school groups. It helps to explain something of the original contexts and meanings of the pole, and to discuss the importance of the Haida collections in the Museum and the Museum’s relationships with Haida communities today.

While this image helps to make those links, its the juxtaposition with the pole and the visual spectacle of the museum space also underscores the removal of the pole and its presence in a museum collection. The historic displays in the Pitt Rivers Museum can evoke colonial histories very easily. We don’t want to celebrate those histories: we want to comment on them and critique them.

We are also conscious that Museum staff and visitors are privileged to be able to view and take inspiration from extraordinary Haida ancestral treasures, and that most Haida people cannot do the same. While we welcome Haida delegations periodically, and have put images of all 301 Haida treasures in the collections online, we know—and regret—that most Haida people will never make it to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Nor will they be able to view the tens of thousands of historic Haida treasures in museums across the UK and Europe. Online collections are a start, but they don’t work for carvers, weavers and other makers who need to see details that are seldom photographed, and for whom photography flattens the 3-dimensional realities of objects. As Haida master carver Christian White pointed out to us some years ago, you can’t tell the depth of carving from a photograph.

People have both a right and a need to access their material heritage. In the case of Indigenous people, access to material heritage is crucial to maintaining culture, to strengthening identity, and to survival. Not being able to have access to material heritage is a continuation of colonial relations of power. If museums are socially responsible institutions, they need to be responsible to communities of origin as well as to local audiences, and they need to create greater access to material heritage for those communities.

I am therefore pleased to say that the Pitt Rivers Museum is working with the Haida Gwaii Museum, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, to prepare for loans from UK collections to Haida Gwaii. It would be a huge step toward access to get Haida objects circulating through the Haida Gwaii Museum every few years, to provide continual inspiration and learning for Haida people. It will certainly benefit all the museums involved. There are many UK museums with significant collections of Haida treasures and we will be inviting them to participate in this program.

This will be expensive and we will have to fundraise: it currently costs about £6,000 to get one object from the UK to Vancouver, and then there is an additional journey by air, ferry and truck to the Haida Gwaii Museum. Given airline schedules, we will have to break the journey in Vancouver, so the partnership with MOA is key, and will give MOA the opportunity to stage events with Haida people living in the Vancouver area. We will be asking couriers to facilitate guided hands-on sessions for small groups of Haida people in Vancouver and Haida Gwaii before they place items in display cases: it will take specially-trained couriers to do that, and UK museums will have to learn how to do so. We will probably have to fundraise for a special, secure case for the Haida Gwaii Museum to satisfy international lending criteria involving security, humidity and temperature.

We will all benefit from this: UK museums will learn from Haida people and share information to audiences in the UK, Haida people will learn from ancestral treasures, and we will strengthen ties between communities. Are you interested in being part of this project, or in supporting it in some way? Please contact me at:

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