Vancouver Museum of Anthropology

You couldn't invent a better setting for a Museum, on a cliff-top above the Pacific Ocean, with a back drop of mountains and views across the city.

It's a very modern building and the concrete architecture mimics the uprights and cross beams of traditional First Nation 'Big Houses' built by the people of this area (Kwakwaka' Wakw). They have some examples of the originals inside.

But it was the Haida exhibits I'd come to see and I wasn't disappointed.  There are replica canoes and salvaged fragments of the Housepoles from abandoned villages.

Haida painted chests were also there, with their mysterious 'formlines'  which take their ancestral storylines into abstraction.  These chests were an important part of Haida life, containing their ceremonial regalia and storing the gifts that would be given away by the chief at the 'Potlatch' feasts. When a chief died, he would sometimes be interred in one of these chests, folded into a foetal position.

For me, the centrepiece of the museum was the Bill Reid sculpture - carved from a single, gigantic piece of yellow cedar - which features part of the Raven creation myth, when Raven discovers human beings hiding in a clam shell.

This is Bill Reid's version of the story.  Raven has already brought the land that is now Haida Gwaii up out of the sea.

The great flood, which had covered the earth for so long, had at last receded and the sand of 
Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii, lay dry. Raven walked along the sand, eyes and ears alert for any unusual sight or sound to break the monotony.  A flash of white caught his eye and there, right at his feet, half buried in the sand, was a gigantic clam shell.

He looked more closely and saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror in his enormous shadow.  He leaned his great head close and, with his smooth, trickster's tongue, coaxed and cajoled and coerced them to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.  These little dwellers were the original Haidas, the first humans."

Bill Reid.

Tomorrow I'm going downtown to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Bill Reid Gallery to see work by two of Canada's major artists -  Emily Carr and Bill Reid - both working in the twentieth century - one European, one Haida. 


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