The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has been gifted an anonymous donation of over 200 First Nations art objects, worth around $7 million. According to MOA, it is “believed to be the largest collection of Northwest Coast First Nations art to return to B.C. in recent decades.” The museum adds that over 90% of historic Northwest Coast indigenous art is not in British Columbia, residing instead in museums or private collections outside the province.
To make its newly acquired objects accessible, MOA is planning to open a Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks on June 21, 2017, the next National Aboriginal Day. The gallery is supported by the Doggone Foundation and a grant from the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program, and its planning and curation will involve input from contemporary indigenous artists, Elders, as well as members of the Musqueam First Nations community, whose traditional ancestral territory includes the UBC Point Grey campus.
“As an indigenous person, and more specifically a Musqueam person, I believe that researching, questioning, speculating about these things is important,” Jordan Wilson, a co-curator of the gallery’s opening exhibition, told Hyperallergic. “It helps build an understanding of who we are and where we come from. Our community’s artists continue to learn from these belongings when developing their contemporary practices.”
Specifically, the curators will collaborate with artists and the community to form insights on techniques and processes related to the objects, as well as the history of experimentation and imagination in art of the Northwest Coast.
“For many years MOA has worked to strengthen its relationships with the First Nations communities represented by their ancestors’ cultural belongings in the collection,” explained Karen Duffek, UBC curator of contemporary visual arts and the Pacific Northwest. “It is vital to understand that, even though these objects may now be in the museum, they are connected to living cultures, and they express ongoing relationships to families, to the land, and to the natural and supernatural worlds.”
Among the highlights of the collection are an intricate 1880 Tsimshian raven rattle carved in maple wood, a detailed 1850–70 Tlingit amulet formed from bone, and a wooden Gitxsan rattle emblazoned with an owl-like face. It also includes artworks by named creators such as Haida carver Charles Edenshaw, Haida weaver Isabel Rorick, and Haida totem pole builder Robert Davidson.
“First Nations artists come to study the older works in the museum to learn from them, and often to share knowledge about their histories of use and ownership and their connections to family genealogies,” Duffek added. “With regard to this newly donated collection, it includes extraordinary historical carvings and works in other media that First Nations and the wider public have not had any access to for generations.”
Artists like Edenshaw and others working in the 20th century were responding to indigenous traditions that were often disappearing, due to theft, loss of land, and suppression of culture. Earlier this year, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said that it was “long past time that those items of such spiritual significance to First Nations in British Columbia found their way home to those communities,” and sent a letter to the American government pushing for repatriation. For instance, the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine, sold under dubious circumstances to an agent of Franz Boas in 1903 for $500, sits in storage at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, despite its spiritual significance. The MOA donation is a step forward in restoring the cultural heritage of British Columbia.