Thursday, 2 October 2014




Fellow Torontonians and museum frequenters; look familiar?

Black and white image. Portion of wooden totem pole.

Black and white image. Portion of wooden totem pole.

Black and white image. Portion of wooden totem pole.

Black and white image. Portion of wooden totem pole.
Photos From: Riley, Linda, ed. Marius Barbeau’s Photographic Collection: The Nass River.
These photographs are sections of one of the four totem poles that currently stands in the stairwell of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Close up of a wooden totem pole.
Personal Photograph. Taken on January 25, 2014.
The four photos were taken in 1927 on Marius Barbeau’s research and collecting trip to British Columbia in the Nass River region. Barbeau was a Canadian anthropologist that is well known in academia for his contributions to the study of both French and Aboriginal Canadian culture. The practice of collecting for display dates back to the 16th century where objects of curiosity were accumulated. However, Aboriginal pieces were specifically collected because of the period belief that the culture was on its way towards extinction. Thus the notion was that collecting the culture would ensure its material survival. The period of collecting is not fondly remembered by many Indigenous communities. There are efforts today to reconcile with the past (ie. repatriation) however difficulties still remain.

Museum directors and curators both sent their own expedition teams for collecting as well as contacted prominent collectors to collect on their behalf. In the 1920s Charles Trick Currelly, the director of the Royal Museum of Archaeology (what is today the ROM), contacted Barbeau with the hope of obtaining totem poles for display. Barbeau was successful in the task, organizing the sale of not just one but three totem poles (all three now stand in the ROM stairwell). The fourth pole was collected by British medical doctor and hobbyist ethnographer Charles Newcombe in the 1920s.

The poles were not immediately installed upon arrival in Toronto. Between 1931 and 1933 a new wing to the museum was constructed to accommodate the size of the poles. During the period of construction the poles were ‘protected’ by a mixture of petroleum and floor wax and encased in a wrapping of burlap.

The four totem poles were carved from western red cedar in the approximated period of 1860 and 1880. The poles derive from the Nisga’a and Haida of the Northwest Coast. The carvings on the poles depict historic events, represent alliances, portray beliefs, display wealth and status, and portray artistic skill. There are many Aboriginal totemic cultures, however each culture has a specific artistic style making its totem poles unique. 

Street view of Royal Ontario Museum, cars driving by.

The pole of focus in this blog is a memorial pole from Gitlaxdamiks, Nass River. The images depicted on the pole are from top to bottom, the person-of-lizards holding a lizard by the sides, the person-of-lizards again but this time holding a lizard by the tail, and flying frog. 

The next time you are at the ROM be sure to take some time to look at and appreciate the totem poles. Keep in mind their broader history outside of the ROM and remember that Aboriginal art and carving is not something that lives in the past. While the poles displayed at the ROM are from the 1800s, Aboriginal art and carving remains a vital craft. 


If your interest was peaked by this article and you would like to learn more, check out:

Riley, Linda, ed. Marius Barbeau’s Photographic Collection: The Nass River.
Royal Ontario Museum/ MuseĆ© Royal De L’Ontario. The Canadian Heritage Floor. 1996.
Royal Ontario Museum/MuseĆ© Royal De L’Ontario.“Conservation Notes: Protecting the Crest Poles.” Rotunda, Vol.37, Spring 1996.    
Hilary Stewart. Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast.
Douglas Cole. Captured Heritage

NOTE- It was not my intent in this article to comment on the correctness of the practice of collecting, but rather to bring attention to its occurrence. I would also like to point out that this blog was not supposed to be a thorough account of Aboriginal art and culture or on museum collecting.

1 comment:

  1. Mallory, thank you for telling us this story! It is true that certain objects we pass by in museums remain unobserved or unquestioned so having the background for the collecting practices is so valuable. I would like to see more such moments in museums - where the collecting and its controversial nature is unraveled for visitors (then we have to make sure they read the text but that is another story :)