Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology Strives To Accurately Represent First Nations Culture

By Cam Martin

Since its beginning, the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver has been committed providing an authentic representation of First Nations art and culture. Situated on the western tip of the sprawling University of British Colombia campus, the university’s Museum of Anthropology overlooks the mountains and sea, providing a beautiful backdrop for the native art inside, most of which is Northwest Coast in origin.

Museum The current building, designed by renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, opened in 1976. Its design is based on the traditional northern Northwest Coast post and beam structure.

The broad cement beams, and rectangular arches of the museum reflect the efficiency of the Haida House design, and provide the perfect setting for the museum patrons to learn about First Nations culture.

In addition to the main design, the museum has many aesthetic features which are First Nations in origin. The main entrance has two contemporary Welcome figures, one carved by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David, and the other by Musqueam artist Susan Point.

Beyond them are two massive doors, carved from solid wood blocks in 1976 by four master Gitxsan artists; Earl Muldoe, Art
Sherritt, Walter Harris, Vernon Stephens.

Western focus
Inside the museum, there is a beautiful selection of objects from First
Nations across Western Canada. As you enter the main exhibit area, there are totems and house posts from the Coast Salish region bands, including Musqueam pieces, on whose ancestral land the museum is built.

Among some of the more well-known sculptures that the museum exhibits are Bill Reid’s famous sculpture, ‘The Raven’ and the ‘First Men’.

The Great Hall, the museum’s main structure, has huge totem poles from Gitxsan, Oweekeno, Haida, and other First Nations. This space is used as an auditorium for museum events. The 15 meter glass walls which overlook the two Haida Houses and other totem poles behind the museum provide a beautiful backdrop for dances, concerts, drama, and many academic events.

The Museum of Anthropology strives to provide a cultural context for the artifacts contained within, as well as the long remaining First Nations artwork. Museum staff have consulted with First Nations representatives in an effort to create a realistic appearance and setting for the artwork. All of the pieces are accompanied by sketches or descriptions which explain how the object would have been involved in the lives of those who built them.

Recently, two members of the Musqueam band were offered internships at the museum. The grant of over $60,000 was made possible by the Department of Canadian Heritage Museum Assistance Program.

The goals of the program are to prepare researchers for working with Elders and to develop their skills in museum practice. The museum has worked collaboratively with the Musqueam on many projects, making sure the native culture of the site is preserved.

Many of the central displays which feature First Nation art are open, with no glass partitions and minimal barriers. In addition to providing an interactive learning environment, the lack of restrictions encourages the patrons to see the objects not as relics of the past, but as objects that still have cultural relevance to the First Nations people.

In conjunction with their desire to create a realistic experience for their patrons, the museum strives towards creating an environment suitable to the creators of the objects they exhibit. There has been extensive consultation with First Nations representatives on the placement of each object in the museum.

Even though the staff have researched their exhibits in order to
show them in their cultural context, there are still cautionary notes
reminding patrons to question how they are viewing the objects, and how the setting might affect their reactions to it.

Canada’s largest teaching museum
This focus on authenticity comes from the desire to educate about the local culture. The museum is the largest teaching museum in Canada. The museum wants to represent First Nations culture accurately so that they can educate in an unbiased way.

Because of its connection with the university, the museum’s focus is on education and much of the space of the museum is for academic use. More than a quarter of the usable space inside the museum are
research areas and lecture halls.

The museum also seeks to educate on secondary and grammar school levels. More than 11,000 lower mainland school children visited the museum last year, and they expect that number to double this year.

The university’s communication manager, Jennifer Webb said, “Our open environment really sparks the kids interest. It is inspiring to see them interact with the exhibits.”

In addition to the tours, there are tutorial kits that educators can get from the museum, which include a manual, teacher and student worksheets, and objects related the study program. Webb does not neglect to point out the museum’s educational value, “The programs we offer help to open children to new cultures, First Nations or otherwise. We’ve got alot of stereotypes to break down, and these programs are a good step.”

The museum is involved with the university’s First Nations program.
Students of the First Nations program often travel to the museum for
tangible examples of what they are studying.

Also, a large portion of the museum’s staff is taken from the First Nations program. The museum understands that it is better to learn about a culture directly from its people.

The Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver continues to be progressive in its relations with the cultures that it exhibits. They are committed to education and authentic representation of the First Nations people of Canada.