Poles rise again at Haida Gwaii Museum

  • Nov. 22, 2006 7:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay–Three poles, none of which have been standing for 20 years or more, have risen again. With expert help, the poles, two originally from the village of Tanu and one from Skidegate, are now standing in the new tall totem gallery at the Haida Heritage Centre at Qay’llanagaay. Carl Schlichting, a conservation expert from off-island worked with the old poles to prepare them for the raising and Arthur Pearson’s Skidegate team was up on the scaffolding, rigging a way to haul them into place. Museum curator Nathalie Macfarlane says these are the some of the last of the old poles created during the 19th century.
“We are custodians of the poles, not owners. The owners are the families and clans associated with them,” said Ms Macfarlane. The tallest of the three, the Skidegate pole at 52 feet, was last standing in the 1980s on Front Street. It was taken to Vancouver after it fell. In 2004, the Skidegate Band Council brought it back to the islands, and the museum has been looking after it since. The Tanu poles were removed in the 1930s by a fish packing company and taken to Prince Rupert. The poles stood in a totem pole park in Prince Rupert for years and were painted every year by city staff. The paint, along with some kind of preservative, helped keep the poles in relatively good shape, says Ms Macfarlane. But in the 1960s, the deteriorating poles were sent to the Royal BC Museum and returned to Haida Gwaii in 1976 when the museum opened its doors. All three of the poles have been lying horizontally along the back wall of the museum, for years. Moving them was a delicate proposition says Ms Macfarlane. Mr. Schlichting, who works with several museums including the Museum of Anthropology, is a specialist in mounting and hanging artifacts from 1/4 inch to three tonnes in size. He says many old poles have been cut off or are rotted at the foot, necessitating a new leg to stand on so to speak, so he is suspending the poles on steel posts with brackets attached to the underside. Mr. Schlichting carefully concealed the bolt holes by filling them with a special epoxy compound developed especially for totem poles. He then carved out the texture and painted the compound to match the silvery old wood. One of the Tanu poles needed extra help. One of the three watchmen at the top of pole was completely rotted off, so Mr. Schlichting made a special bracket and used wooden dowels as cross pieces to reattach the piece. As for the raising, Mr. Pearson hauled a beam 40 feet in the air where it will be held up by steel stilts and fastened to the wall at one point. The poles were pulled up with the help of several members of the community. Just one of the poles is 3,800 pounds, he said. He says there is no room to raise the poles in the traditional way with several lines. “They are pretty delicate too,” he says. This way, he had to erect and disassemble 50 feet of scaffolding several times as well. But the hardest part comes when the poles are up. Then Mr. Pearson and the others have to remove the beam and stilts from behind the aging poles, without damaging them.

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