7 December 2017




Surprise! "Dust, Rust, and All the Rest" is back for one last edition. This post is dedicated to the Royal Ontario Museum’s iconic totem poles.

The holidays are nearly upon us, and for some this means hanging out with friends, entertaining visiting family, or relaxing after the marathon known as final term assignments. All three activities can quite nicely be enjoyed at the ROM – and while you’re there, you can wow your guests (or yourself) with some historical and conservationist facts about the famous ROM totem poles.

Like all great stories, this one begins over one hundred years ago when Bill 138 passed on April 16, 1912. This bill officially created the Royal Ontario Museum, yet the University of Toronto, who first proposed a museum in Toronto, had been collecting objects for a museum long before this legislation. The university tasked Charles Trick Currelly, a graduate of Victoria College and self-taught archaeologist, with filling their proposed museum, which he did with unmatched vigor and passion. 

Charles Trick Currelly. Source.
In the spring of 1913, as the administration and management plans for the new museum were being finalized, Currelly was sent out on a lecture tour. By all accounts, Currelly was a tad overenthusiastic and this series was intended to keep him from meddling. In British Columbia, he was intrigued by the craftsmanship of the west coast people. Through Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau, Currelly purchased three totem poles for the museum.

It is important to contextualize this purchase as it occurred during the Indian Act, under which the potlatch ban criminalized the creation of Indigenous ceremonial and cultural art. There was a mad rush to acquire (although in some instance “seize” might be more appropriate) Indigenous objects and art. A fourth totem pole was collected by British medical doctor and hobbyist ethnographer Charles Newcombe in the 1920s.

Transporting artifacts is a test of ingenuity and planning. Transporting totem poles, the tallest of which was twenty-four metres, from British Columbia to Toronto is a logistical nightmare. The poles were floated down the Portland Canal to the ocean, then towed to Prince Rupert. The largest pole was cut into three sections while afloat before it could be loaded into a railway car. 

The Portland Canal to Stewart, BC. Source.
All of this work was almost for nothing, as there was no room in the original museum for the totem poles. They could be erected outside the building, but Currelly had been told that they wouldn’t last for more than one hundred years outdoors. What follows is perhaps the greatest example of collections management-obsession ever.

A hundred years sounds like a long time to most. But remember when I said that Currelly was obsessively passionate about his museum? A hundred years wasn’t good enough (especially when people were certain that Indigenous craftsmanship would end). Currelly was so certain that the museum would warrant an expansion in the upcoming years that he decided to preserve and store the totem poles until they had a home inside.

By no means a conservator, really by any standards, Currelly remembered his time at dig sites and the unconventional methods of artifact handling to create a preservation method. He soaked the poles in petroleum until they were completely saturated, then poured gallons of floor wax over them. Finally, they were wrapped in protective bandages and burlap then lain outside the museum until a new wing was built in 1933 with a specially designed area to display the poles (fun fact: this is the Queen’s Park wing with the old entrance the will be reopened). Incredibly, the totem poles were perfectly preserved after more than a decade outside.

Now they sit in the two stairwells off the Rotunda, still preserved after more than one hundred years. But there was a casualty of Currelly’s conservation treatment: the petroleum oil destroyed the original paint decorations. Otherwise, the totem poles are in great condition.

The totem poles in their specially crafted home. Source.
By displaying the totem poles inside, there are fewer conservation dangers: the CCI Notes for indoor totem poles only warns about the wood cracking, as red cedar is a moist wood that splits as the moisture evaporates after logging.

The poles should be dusted infrequently to prevent uneven polishing or abrasion. When dusting is needed, use a vacuum with a long-haired attachment, as Rick Mercer did at the Canadian Museum of History.

This is officially the last Conservation Tips and Tricks post of 2017. Hopefully on your next visit to the ROM you’ll see the totem poles in a new light. Happy Holidays!

Further Reading:

Dickson, Lovat. The Museum Makers: The Story of the Royal Ontario Museum. Canada: The Bryant Press, 1986.

Horrill, Mallory. "81 Years in a Museum". Musings. October 2, 2014.

Kenter, Peter. "Work of indigenous builders lives on in ROM totem poles". Daily Commercial News. July 28, 2016.

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