Academic journal article Ethnologies

Ethnographic Things: Objects and Subjects in Haida History

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Ethnographic Things: Objects and Subjects in Haida History

Article excerpt

L'histoire sociale comme la valeur esthetique de l'art Haida sont des sujets souvent de conflits ou sont marques par un manque de clarte. Cet article propose d'explorer les objets de Haida Gwaii pour un usage strictement local et par rapport a un ou deux cycles mythiques. Puis, a partir de la moitie du XIXe siecle, les collectionneurs, les marchands et les musees du monde occidental sont arrives; ils se sont pris des milliers d'objets, et, en 1880, de nombreux artistes Haida pouvaient affirmer la continuite en fabriquant des maisons modeles, des totems et des bateaux pour les marches de souvenirs.

The social history and aesthetic value of art made by Haida people are subjects often in conflict or marked by a lack of clarity. This essay attempts to explore the things made on Haida Gwaii for different purposes: for entirely local use and in relation to one or two mythic cycles. Then, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the collectors, dealers, and museum of the western world arrived; they took thousands of objects away, and by 1880 many Haida artists could assert continuity by making model houses, totem poles, and boats for growing souvenir markets.

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Early in the twentieth century McCoy Hall in the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, held a variety of artifacts: a stuffed walrus, numerous skeletons from animals ranging from a blue whale to a kangaroo, and a surprising array of ethnographic and anthropological specimens. The general appearance of the gallery recalls the early modern Wunderkammer and cabinets of curiosities that have been assembled ever since (figure 1). The surreal juxtaposition of skeleton, artifact, and, say, the baby elephant displayed in the glass case in the center aisle, comes as no accident: the gallery in 1901 was named in honor of Frederick McCoy, an individual with many talents: Melbourne University professor, avid collector of many of the exhibits still on view in the museum today, and director of the museum from 1856 until his death in 1899 (1). Especially noticeable in this photograph, however, is the Haida frontal pole visible at the rear of the hall, somewhat obscured by strange, protruding skulls of other specimens. The museum acquired the pole in 1911 from Charles Newcombe, who first photographed the pole in its original location in a village called Hlghagilda (Skidegate) prior to overseeing its removal (2).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

If we somehow lift the pole from this early twentieth-century image and examine it more closely, we are struck by its strong color scheme (though some later renewal is likely), the piling up of animal forms or "crests," and the evident virtuosity of workmanship (figure 2). But how are we to interpret this artifact? What steps toward contextual grounding are necessary before our gaze can rest easy? An initial path may be charted when we learn that unlike the round cross-section of most surviving poles, that of the Melbourne example is unusual; its rear face is flattened and in fact slightly concave in profile, as if it was followed out to form that shape with exacting deliberation. What can account for this feature? Newcombe's 1911 photograph of the pole shows that it was flattened along its entire rear face, even as it rose over fifteen meters into the air. The use of concave frontal poles was documented in 1878 by George M. Dawson, who attributed the technique to an effort to reduce their weight and thereby ease installation without sacrificing rigidity. These poles "are generally 30 to 50 feet in height," Dawson observed, "with a width of three feet or more at the base, and tapering slightly upwards. They are hollowed behind in the manner of a trough, to make them light enough to be set and maintained in place without much difficulty." A panoramic photograph taken in the same village by Edward Dossetter in 1881, just three years later, shows that several additional frontal poles shared this flattened, hollowed-out, appearance (Dawson 1993: 141) (3). …

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