First Nations Masterpieces

One of the best museums of culture I’ve ever visited is the jaw-dropping Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The collection spans the globe, but it focuses on artifacts crafted by the First Nations peoples of Western Canada. The most dramatic of these are the totem poles.


There is a small display of these outside on the museum’s grounds, but the older poles are kept indoors for the sake of preservation. The section from a Haida house post below, for example, is over 160 years old; it once stood against the back wall of a lineage house of the Wind Place family as a roof support. The main character here is a bear (which has a human between its legs, frogs in its ears, and a cub above its forehead).


The carvings on house poles depict the crests of individual families. This pole, which stood for many decades outside of a Wulkinuxv house on an island off of Vancouver’s central coast,¬†features a giant raven:


Some totem poles can be much more sinister; the Kwakwaka’wakw house post on the left below depicts a grizzly bear (the chief’s crest) holding the head of a rival chief:


The museum even has a room where they display old totem poles that are at risk of falling apart:


But there’s so much more than totem poles here. I was especially interested in the bentwood boxes and chests:


The First Nations peoples designed these boxes, made for traveling in boats and storing things in wet Pacific climates, using an ingenious method:


Bentwood boxes usually have flat sides, but this Haida chest has a bear snout and paws protruding from its middle:


I also loved the giant “house dishes” that would have been used to serve food at great Kwakwaka’wakw feasts:


My favorite piece in the museum was probably this house dish; representing Sisiyutl, the double-headed serpent, it would have been wheeled into a potlatch with gifts of sugar for the host chief:


There are so many things to see in the collection from Canada’s First Nations — you’ll find canoes …


Haida canoe designed by Bill Reid

… blankets …


Nisga’a chief’s dancing blanket


Haida button blanket with a beaver

… dagger handles …


Haida (bear with cub and human)

… bowls …


Haida (image of a raven in human form, with a whale swallowing the raven)

… weavings …


Nuu-chah-nulth mat

… and a wide variety of masks:


Nuxalk headdress


‘Nakwaxda’xw masks


‘Namgis mask


Kwakwaka’wakw mask

The museum also has a number of large, more contemporary carvings by Haida artist Bill Reid, who is often credited with revitalizing and modernizing western First Nations art in the late twentieth century. You can have one-on-one time with his larger-than-life bear …


… or sit and contemplate his monumental piece, The Raven and the First Men:


This enormous piece — given its own circular room at the museum — depicts the finding of the first humans by the trickster raven, who coaxed them out of a giant clamshell that he found on the beach.


Given all the time in the world, a visitor to this museum might spend a few hours studying the First Nations pieces and then go home. But if you have only one opportunity to visit, you’ll also want to find time for the cavernous Multiversity Galleries. This space brings together over 10,000 objects from all around the world — and truth be told, it’s a little overwhelming. You just can’t possibly fit it all in. But it’s worth taking a hour or two just to browse and pick out the pieces that capture your attention. You might find a sculpture from Portugal …


The Last Supper of Lucifer, by Manuel Goncalves Lima

… a set of masks from Papua New Guinea …


… a seal from the Qianlong Emperor of China …


… a painting from Vanuatu…


Melanesie by Moses Jobo

… a Zuni bowl from the American Southwest …


… shadow puppet from Western Indonesia …


… initiation headdresses from the Bijagos Islands (near Guinea-Bissau) …


… a painted mandala from Tibet …


… or a Bamileke mask from Cameroon:


Really, who knows what you’ll find? There’s so much stuff in this collection that you could get lost in it for days — so it’s important not to try to see everything.

If you want a focal point, you could spend quite a while investigating the section on Inuit and other Arctic art. The carvings in this section are particularly wonderful.


Here are some of the oldest known Inuit carvings in the museum’s collection, probably crafted in the early 1800s:


They also have a collection of Arctic utensils and clothing. I love the fact that someone carefully hand-embroidered these flowers on some kind of a pelt:


The museum doesn’t believe that all artifacts have to be old, however, to count as archaeology. In this same section, you’ll find a hockey jersey made by Nike for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which features art by Musqueam artist Debra Sparrow: a thunderbird design inside of the maple leaf crest.


The Museum of Anthropology also includes the Koerner European Ceramic Gallery, which is housed in one giant room. I did stop in — but given everything else that’s here, I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you have a particular interest in (mostly Eastern European) earthenware.


Slovakian jug, 1699

This museum is a delight, though it requires pacing and decision-making if you’re going to try to do the whole thing in a single long afternoon. But you’re unlikely to find another museum of its kind anywhere else in the world!

One response to “First Nations Masterpieces

  1. Pingback: 13 Things to See (& Do) in Vancouver | Traveler Tina·

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