Our Vancouver guide book urged us to visit the Museum of Anthropology on the campus of the University of British Columbia. We gathered our family together, jumped in a taxi and travelled out of urban Vancouver to a more verdant suburb of the city, parking outside a building nestled into a woodland. What we found, blew us away.
MOA is built on the ancestral land of the Musqueam people in a building designed by the famous Canadian architect Arthur Erickson in 1976. Erickson has created an ingenious design that integrates the Northwest Coast First Nations art seamlessly within its walls. Monumental totem poles, house posts and canoes greet you within the main hall; each art object is given the space it commands. A soaring glass wall opens the museum to the surrounding landscape, including a serene “reflecting” pool, forested islands and majestic mountains overlooking the Salish sea. At the risk of sounding hokey, there is truly something potent about this museum, and its holdings. There’s an energy that resonates through the art and permeates the walls of the space.
The curators have grouped the material according to ownership history, or the ceremonies in which they art was used, or placed simply in the best light to suit the object.
While MOA hosts African, Oceanic and Asian art, it is the Northwest Coast art that is the most significant in the collections. The Museum was formed to house the Frank Burnett Collection (acquired in 1927), as well as important house posts and totem poles. The Walter and Marianne Koerner donation of their rich collection of Northwest Coast art in 1975 became a large part of MOA’s holdings.
One of my favorite sculptures is a fragment of a Haida house-front pole (GyaaGang). It is in the form of a grizzly bear with a human face and a frog in its mouth, with a small figure below wearing a hat. The carving is deep and stylized and expresses Haida ideas of the passage of the natural and supernatural worlds, and the inter-connectedness of the human and animal realms.
I was also fascinated by the cedar bentwood chests that were steam-bent and used to store blankets, ceremonial objects and other treasures of high-ranking Northwest Coast families. The chests express the idea of a container as a living being. Their painted features show a morphing, double-eyed creature who controls and protects wealth. I loved a Haida example with rich yellow and red cedar wood, with relief carved human faces emerging from the mouth of a mythical creatures.
The Kwakwaka’wakw people (a group of tribes in British Columbia also known as Kwakiutl sharing the Kwakwaka’wakw language) were well represented. A towering figure (ca. 1860) etched itself on our minds with its rounded limbs and dominating open mouth. It was used during winter ceremonies inside the Bighouse, when a high-ranking person would hide behind the figure, projecting his voice forward, as though the ancestor himself was communicating with the gathered guests.
MOA – please make a catalogue dedicated to the Northwest Coast art in the collection!