By CLINT BUEHLER
EDMONTON – The Royal Alberta Museum’s (RAM)has finally given the public access the bulk of a collection of rare First Nations and Metis artifacts gathered by an eccentric Scottish earl, the 9th Earl of Southesk.
An exhibition of the artifacts was opened to the public earlier this month.
The RAM’s curatorial staff’s successfully rescued the collection last year with the solid support and fast action of Aboriginal leaders, other Canadian museums and federal and provincial funding agencies.
Rather than going to private collectors where it was feared they would be scattered to different destinations and inaccessible, most of those artifacts will now b e available for viewing and research at the museum.
Metis and First Nations leaders and Canadian museums staff were aghast at the potential loss of access to the rare collection if it went to private collectors.
The RAM first became aware that Sotheby’s was selling the collection about two weeks prior to the auction, says RAM Curator Susan Berry. RAM staff immediately sprang into action.
They contacted other museums to ensure they wouldn’t compete in the bidding, and for letters of support to funders. They contacted Aboriginal leaders for letters of support. They contacted funding agencies to secure funding in time for the auction. All responded immediately and positively.
At stake was a distinctive collection of rare artifacts from the mid-19th century, an era which was not represented in the RAM collection. Sotheby’s, which conducted the May 8 sale in New York, called the collection “the most historically significant group of American Indian artifacts ever to be offered at auction.”
The artifacts had been gathered by James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk on a tour of western Canada, beginning in 1859. The journey is chronicled in his book, “Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains.”
Only 32 when he made the journey, and in ill heath from mourning the loss of his young wife, he made the trip, as he wrote later, to “travel in some part of the world where good sport could be met with among the larger animals and where, at the same time, I might recruit my health by an active open-air life in a healthy climate.”
His choice was what was the Rupert’s Land and traveled through southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, spent a week at Fort Edmonton, then headed up the Athabasca River and down to the Kootney Plains and the Bow River near what is now Calgary and Banff.
Dubbed by some as the “first tourist” to visit Western Canada, not being an explorer, trader or surveyor like those who had come before him.
He didn’t exactly rough it. Although he dressed like a frontiersman in buckskin, his entourage included a gamekeeper from his Scottish estate and an Iroquois cook, as well as guides and porters. He even traveled with a rubber bathtub.
The earl didn’t always see the Indians in so positive a light, dismissing some as “bloated, disgusting savages” while praising the Metis as “tall, straight and well proportioned.”
The earl, like other tourists, gathered souvenirs as he travelled, purchasing or commissioning dozens of pieces from Metis, Cree, Nakoda. Blood and Blackfoot artists and craftspeople, including shirta, dresses, moccasin, mittes, purses, pipes, knives, sheaths, and saddle pads. In some instances he had items such as slippers made specifically for his four young children at home.
The collection had been languishing in the ancestral castle in Scotland for the past 150 years, many in pristine condition, with intricate beadwork fully intact, porcupine quill work that has retained its brilliant colours and silk ribbons that remain unfrayed.
The collection was not unknown here, according to Berry.
Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette of the University of Saskatchewan had seen and studied the collection in Scotland, as has Dr. Pat McCormack of the University of Alberta’s School of Native Studies and researchers from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Now, says Berry, some of the pieces in the collection will be available because the RAM successfully bid for them against other bidders in the United States and elsewhere, possibly making them unavailable for viewing and research in Alberta, and maybe anywhere else.
The RAM’s success in acquiring the items has a double benefit, says Berry, rescuing First Nations and Metis artifacts of great cultural and historical significance, and a big step for the RAM to become one of Canada’s great museums.
“If people are coming to the Royal Alberta Museum from around the world,” says RAM director Bruce McGillivray, “this is the kind of collection they expect to see.”
The RAM was unable to bid successfully for every item in the collection, but did acquire 29 of the 39 pieces being offered for a little less than $1.1 million Canadian, thanks to a cultural properties grant from the Canadian Heritage Emergency Program, and grants from the Alberta Heritage Research Foundation and Alberta Aboriginal Affairs.
Unfortunately, Berry says, Sotheby’s would not reveal the identity of the private collectors who purchased the other 10 items, including the item that went for the highest price. That was an elaborately beaded Blackfoot man’s shirt that sold to a private collector for $800,000 U.S.
The RAM scored its own coup, however, successfully bidding $497,600 U.S. for a Kainai (Blood) dress which the earl described in his journal as “a beautiful specimen of a Blood Indian women’s dress, made from prepared skins of the mountain sheep and richly embroidered with blue and white beads. Such dresses are now seldom to be seen.”
Before this purchase the RAM had no artifacts from the 1850s in its collection, with most remaining in European collections.
Berry says the time from when the availability of the collection was discovered until the auction was over was extremely stressful for everyone involved.