I walked past it at first. The grey shroud was plain and dull. I assumed that it was covering a work in progress, that this was an item set aside for restoration.
Beneath this shroud was a ceremonial mask.
This was just one item amidst a wide display of authentic First Nations artifacts at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MoA). It was a small, yet vivid, reminder of the debate that continues regarding this exhibition. Some support the display of historical items like this, with the hope that it will encourage a better understanding and appreciation of this fascinating culture. Others believe items of this nature should be put away, or “hidden”, as was once the custom.
Regardless of which side of the debate you take, to wander through the main First Nations exhibition is to feel like you are being let in on a secret. It feels significant that you are being given the opportunity to share in a small part of the rich and vibrant culture of the first people known to live in British Columbia.
The MoA building itself is an unusual construction. It was specifically designed around the exhibitions within. There is space and light and the formidable totem poles, in particular, are really able to shine. Each of these totems are a monument to an ancestor, an historical event or a person and those on display are a wonderful tribute to the extraordinary skill of the carvers.
Whereas the shrouded mask is a nod to the respect now offered to the First Nations and their culture, there is evidence that they were not always treated this way. When we visited the MoA, there was a smaller exhibition on display in The O’Brian Gallery entitled Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St Michael’s Residential School. This exhibit addresses a harrowing time in Canada’s history when the children of aboriginal lineage were removed from their families and sent to this School for educational purposes. What this really meant was that they were stripped of the opportunity to learn about their family’s cultural beliefs and languages in favour of Christianity and English or French.
The walls of the Gallery are lined with statements from those who attended the school from the 1930s. There are photos with names recorded on acetate – a bid to identify the protagonists. Banners are suspended from the ceiling emblazoned with apologies from various authorities, including the Government and the church, for their role in the administration of the facility. The simplicity of the Gallery’s layout allows for the words and images to tell the story. The pain, frustration and anger at the abuses are palpable.
As is often the case, we cannot help but see the stories of others through the lens of our own history, our own people. And any Scottish Gael or Highlander will hear echoes of our own past throughout the First Nations exhibition; from the suppression of centuries old traditions to the undermining of a language in the name of “proper” education. It is a mark of the resilience of this culture that it can still evoke such passion from its members, despite sustained campaigns to quash it. It is a powerful thing to witness.
But this is not the end of the story. You need not look further than Bill Reid’s famous sculpture of The Raven and the First Man for evidence of ways in which Canadian culture is still being deeply enriched by the heritage of the First Nations.
The story goes that; “Thousands of years ago ago, a great flood covered the earth. One day The Raven was flying, when he spotted something glimmering in the sand below him. He flew down to inspect further and found that the shimmer was coming from an oyster shell. Even stranger was what he found within. Several small, strange creatures wriggled inside which he eventually persuaded to come out. This was the birth of the first people of the human race. More specifically, this was the birth of the Haida First Nations community.”
The displays and exhibits in this Museum are not all from an extinct culture or from a long gone era. These are not just lifeless objects. For those members of the First Nations whose cultural heritage is represented, the spirits and stories that imbue these artifacts are as alive and significant as ever. To visit the MoA is to gain a better understanding of what shaped this amazing province and should definitely be on your to-see list if you ever pass by.
NB: Though the Museum has a very local focus, as I’ve discussed here, there is also a great international section with items from as far as China, Japan, Papua New Guinea and various African countries. They also have different, smaller exhibitions all the time so no two visits will be the same.
Find out more: Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia