Haida delegates off to British museums

  • Sep. 7, 2009 7:00 a.m.

by Heather Ramsay-The 1960s had the “British Invasion” with Brit pop stars like the Beatles arriving en masse in North America, and now it’s the Haida Invasion, as 21 Haida delegates descend on Britain for 20 days. The group of elders, hereditary leaders, youth, cultural workers and repatriation committee members from both Skidegate and Massett is heading to Oxford and London to build relationships with museum officials and see first-hand hundreds of objects collected over the last two centuries. Haida Heritage Centre manager Jason Alsop is one of 13 from Skidegate who left Sunday (Sept. 6) for the overseas trip. Mr. Alsop is excited to see some very old things made and used by his ancestors, but he’s also keen to learn more about museum practices in institutions like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London. “The main purpose is to build relationships with the museums,” he said. “It will be cool to go there not only to see things but to see the whole approach they take to collections.” The group doesn’t intend to repatriate objects on this trip, he said, but will document the items held in the two museums. They hope to get some of the cultural treasures to Haida Gwaii in the future, likely by way of loaning objects back and forth. Mr. Alsop said the British museums are also looking forward to the opportunity to learn about the objects in their collection from Haida knowledge-holders. A news release from the Pitt River Museum says “there is relatively little specialist knowledge about these collections in the UK, and Haida people have had little access to them.” Many of the artifacts have not left the United Kingdom since they were brought there, but Mr. Alsop noted that he’d seen at least one before, a Raven transformation mask by Charles Edenshaw that was part of the Raven Travelling exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2006. The mask is held at the Pitt Rivers Museum. “We are looking forward to learning about these object from Haida elders, artists and curators so that we can interpret materials to the public and also serve the needs of the Haida people,” said Dr. Laura Peers, curator for the Americas collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Relationships between Pitt Rivers Museum and the British Museum have gotten a good start with a few smaller exchanges in the past. This time, the Haida delegates will not only have access to artifacts, curators and archives, but the members of the public will have access to them. Mr. Alsop said the group will perform, do demonstrations and give presentations. They are also each bringing gifts from Haida Gwaii to give away at appropriate moments. He said the trip will also be a good opportunity for younger Haidas to spend time with their elders and learn from them. He’s curious to see the much older artifacts, noting that many of the pieces at the museum here are newer items. The group will also be looking through archives for photos that haven’t been seen, at ships’ logs and other archival materials. He also hopes to take time to explore some other parts of the collection and witness the cultures side by side on display. “To see our stuff on the same level as the Rosetta Stone. . .” he said. Funding for many of the participants was raised through the repatriation committee, but several delegates also received funding thanks to grants from British trusts. The group will return to Haida Gwaii on Sept. 27.