Objects and Expressions

72 pages,
ISBN: 0888651287

Post Your Opinion
Dancing Cookie, or Encounters in the Museum's Sacred Space
by Karen Duffek

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia is one of Canada's most renowned museums. Well-known for its inspired architecture, it holds collections of Northwest Coast art and other materials from around the world. This year the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The museum began its operations in 1949, housed in the basement of the old UBC library. Directed and curated by Drs. Harry and Audrey Hawthorn, it continued to build its collections in these cramped quarters for the next twenty-seven years.

In 1976, the new building, designed by Arthur Erickson, opened its doors to the public. Dr. Michael M. Ames served as director until 1997, overseeing the growth of Canada's largest teaching museum and establishing an active program of collaborative community-based research, exhibits, and publications. The third and current director, Dr. Ruth Phillips, will lead MOA into the new millennium.

"One of my favourite objects in the Museum of Anthropology," writes Michael Ames in this 50th anniversary celebration of the museum's collections, "was a large chocolate chip cookie which one day in the late 1970s rolled down the ramp, bounced around in the Great Hall, rolled back up the ramp again, and disappeared out the front door. Unlike most objects that enter a museum, this one didn't stay very long."

In its brief transgression of the museum's sacred spaces, the Dancing Cookie-an animated nylon sculpture by Evelyn Roth-left us with food for thought. It provoked the kinds of questions that curators, artists, and originating communities continue to grapple with today. What belongs in a museum? Who should decide? And what happens to the meanings of the objects that stay?

Objects and Expressions offers some answers to these questions, though not by addressing the issues directly. Rather, this slim volume, with exquisite photography by Bill McLennan, presents the individual voices of fifty friends and associates of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) who were invited to select a favourite object from the collections and share with readers the stories and insights it evokes. We hear from artists and elders, collectors and connoisseurs, students and scholars. We look through others' eyes at an immense range of human creativity-from a miniature totem pole no bigger than a matchstick, to the museum's renowned architecture by Arthur Erickson. "Their remarks remind us of the web of meaning by which each object in our collection is activated," says MOA Director, Ruth Phillips. "That the pattern of this web changes over time, and that it is always constructed of a combination of collective and individual knowledge."

In current anthropological discourse, particularly as represented in the work of James Clifford, museums are described as a "contact zone" for things and people, where visions of culture and community, both past and present, are articulated. The dominant voice of the academic curator is questioned; assuming centre stage are the voices of those whose works and societies are the traditional subjects of anthropological research. For MOA, established fifty years ago on the founding principles of scholarship, teaching, experimentation, and establishing positive relationships with living First Nations communities, this has meant an evolving emphasis on the ways in which the expressive forms of culture are interpreted and classified. The challenge is to find an appropriate balance: honouring the voices of the originating community, while recognizing that multiple viewpoints are also integral to a museum that defines itself as a place where different understandings come together.

Increasingly, objects are presented not only as art or artifact, but also in terms of their changing meanings, their innovations, and their ongoing stories. "Our people used to live in longhouses," writes one of the book's contributors, Musqueam elder, educator, and spiritual leader Vince Stogan. "Each longhouse had their own housepost. This one here is originally the housepost of my great grandfather, `Tsimalano.' There used to be two of [these houseposts], but the other one was destroyed... So that's when my late brother said, `Let's take this one down to the museum for safe-keeping.' That's why it's here... And I hope that everyone will understand now why we brought it here: so that people can see... that a long time ago... the poles we had were houseposts." Purchased from the Musqueam people by UBC's Class of 1927, the housepost has been exhibited at MOA for many years as an example of the Coast Salish style of carving. Seen through Vince Stogan's eyes, it speaks more specifically of kinship, family property, and the enduring significance of objects, even as the world around them changes.

Collecting, exhibiting, interpreting, preserving-these have long been considered the most fundamental tasks of museums. Yet, as the object is continually redefined, so are these traditional roles. MOA acknowledges that some objects may have a non-material side embodying cultural rights, values, knowledge, and ideas that are not owned or possessed by the museum, but are retained by the originating communities. Tahltan/Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob comments on a pair of nineteenth-century Tlingit carvings: "These pieces remind me of two stories in regards to Tlingit crests. Some of these crests were inherited, some were taken in war, so it's best not to talk about them." Indeed, certain "culturally-sensitive materials" in MOA's collection are no longer exhibited in the public galleries because they were never meant to be viewed by the uninitiated. Other objects are the subject of repatriation discussions, meaning that they may eventually be returned to families or communities able to prove ownership, or that the communities will share in their care and interpretation.

In her contribution to Objects and Expressions, Musqueam Indian Band member Leona Sparrow asserts, "The Museum has an emerging understanding that where, in recent history, it has been the repository of cultural wealth, it also has an obligation to bring that cultural information back to the community where it originated." Located on the traditional territories of the Musqueam nation, MOA is part of a complex history of colonial encounters. Its role in the preservation of cultural artifacts cannot easily be separated from the displacement of objects from their originating communities. "When this museum was founded," reflects Phillips, "the prohibition of the potlatch hadn't yet been dropped [from federal legislation]. That moment [in 1951] was important in the strengthening of ceremonial life progressively over the past almost 50 years. The de-colonizing process has become a matter of re-negotiating ownership of land and ownership of collections. That wasn't on the table 50 years ago, and it affects the way that we're working with communities much more as equal partners."

Objects originally collected as memorials to dying cultures now act as links between the historic past and the creative imaginations of contemporary artists. Nisga'a artist Norman Tait describes his favourite piece, the Eagle-Halibut totem pole, which was carved by his ancestor, Oyea, and which Tait helped to restore. "A lot of [Oyea's] poles are gone now and this seems to be the last one that's still in good condition.... When I first came around here, there were no [Nisga'a] carvers at all. So my only option was to go from museum to museum and pull out all the old Nisga'a pieces and study them. It took years and years." Objects in museums have been important teachers of nineteenth-century styles-the essential foundation, many artists believe, upon which new ideas and formal innovations can be built. Former MOA curator Margaret Stott tells about Nuxalk artist Glenn Tallio, who "appeared at the front desk seeking information about objects his grandfather had once owned." Tallio embarked on a program of self study, using the resources at MOA as well as photographs from other museums. A few years later, he returned with his first major work under his arm-a masterful Crooked Beak mask that became the first contemporary addition to MOA's Nuxalk collection.

Already in the 1950s, MOA initiated carving programs involving living artists. The original impetus was to have Kwakwaka'wakw hereditary chief and carver, Mungo Martin, restore a number of old totem poles; soon the focus shifted to the creation of new works. This was the start of MOA's active participation in the ongoing history of Northwest Coast cultural renewal. From 1960-1963, Haida artist Bill Reid, assisted by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Doug Cranmer, oversaw the construction of two Haida houses and carved six poles and a massive sea-wolf sculpture. Other artists have carved and raised poles on the museum grounds since then. Most recently, artist-in-residence Lyle Wilson created a new representation of a Haisla housepost figure in MOA's collection. For a time, the museum exhibited the new work beside the old; then Wilson made arrangements to have his sculpture transported back to his home village of Kitamaat. "By donating the carving to the Haisla Community School," he writes in Objects and Expressions, "I could not only show my support for educational ideals, but also give something tangible back to the community."

Momentous demographic and cultural changes have transformed the region served by the museum and the university in the past two decades. As MOA re-thinks the old models by which objects are sorted into rigid tribal boxes, it is also exploring how the mutual influences of cultures upon one another can be better represented. Approximately half of the museum's collection is North American First Nations, with an emphasis on the Northwest Coast, and the other half comprises materials from the rest of the world. MOA's newest addition-the Koerner Ceramics Gallery-features a collection of European ceramics donated by Walter C. Koerner in 1990. Including objects from Western traditions of material culture offers new opportunities for cross-cultural comparison, as well as a way of broadening the anthropological gaze beyond tribal manufactures. Addressing the complex junctures of old and new that have historically occurred within and among cultural groups, and that continue to shape contemporary expressions of ethnicity, is also helping audiences to make their own meaningful connections to the objects they see.

Gitxsan artist Doreen Jensen writes about a sculpture that has "haunted" her since she first noticed it in the museum: a baptismal font in the form of an angel, carved by Tsimshian artist Freddie Alexie in 1886. Classic Tsimshian style merges with European Christian imagery in a hybrid form that challenges notions of the authentic in First Nations art: "The forms seem to fit, but at the same time don't fit.... the result is a dynamic tension." Jensen sees the work as ingenious and innovative-a way for Alexie to serve his community and carry tradition forward in new contexts. "Somehow he knew that it was important to create detailed illustrations of his cultural life, that speak to us across the years."

The dialogue between objects and people across cultural space as well as time is a recurrent theme in Objects and Expressions. "I have always been interested in the journeys of objects," writes MOA Curator of Ethnology and Ceramics, Carol Mayer. Her selection for the book is a carved wooden bonito fish from the Solomon Islands. "This bonito was collected in 1909 by Frank Burnett, a Vancouver-based writer and traveler.... From the Solomon Islands this bonito traveled to Papua New Guinea, Australia, and then to Vancouver, where it was installed in Burnett's `curio room' in his home." In 1927, Burnett donated his large Oceanic collection to UBC, and it went on to become the founding collection of the museum. The objects that caught Burnett's eye ninety years ago will be the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at MOA, which is being organized in active partnership with the descendants of those who originally created these many works. Each step in this circular journey has brought about a further transformation in the meaning and use of these works; even so, their continued cultural importance for Solomon Islanders is affirmed, as is the possibility of appreciating them from an outsider's point of view.

By bringing together people and objects, each with ties to different histories, places, and cultural practices, Objects and Expressions not only celebrates MOA's collection but also reveals its essence. The book, as well as the accompanying exhibition, "Exhibit A: Objects of Intrigue" (through March 31, 2000), is a kind of gathering of disparate works connected to each other by the community of people that has built the museum. The voices accompanying each object add layers of personal reflection-sometimes humourous, always evocative-along with memory, critique, and specialized knowledge. Like the handmade things it presents, Objects and Expressions can be enjoyed on many levels. The book is finely crafted; it offers an intriguing sampling of MOA's breadth of collections; it allows us to appreciate those moments of connection between people and the objects they encounter. And like a dancing cookie, it touches on the broader questions that give us food for thought. 

Karen Duffek is a freelance curator and writer in Vancouver who specializes in the study of First Nations art of the Northwest Coast.


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