Lower Mainland

Indigenous Masterworks in Vancouver

Explore the Museum of Anthropology’s groundbreaking new gallery

by John Lee

(Left) Pipe bowl in the form of a bird, Photo courtesy of UBC Public Affairs; (Right) MOA’s Karen Duffek—one of the curators behind the project.

From a raven-patterned silver bracelet to a tobacco pipe shaped like a hungry baby bird, the highly anticipated new exhibition at Vancouver’s celebrated Museum of Anthropology at UBC (MOA) is brimming with exquisite indigenous treasures.=

Officially open as of June 22, In a Different Light: Reflecting on Northwest Coast Art showcases some of the unique artworks from an astonishing 200-item collection that was recently promised to the MOA. Valued at $7 million, the collection includes works from First Nations communities such as the Haida and Tlingit, plus revered indigenous artists, including Bill Reid and Dempsey Bob.

Mostly acquired at auctions around the world, and considered one of the largest collections of locally created First Nations objects to return to B.C. in decades, this landmark gift was granted to the museum anonymously.

And, shortly after that donation, the Doggone Foundation and Government of Canada offered $3.5 million to create a new display space for the collection. This permanent gallery, called the Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks, will showcase an evolving array of objects from the anonymously donated collection alongside MOA’s own collection and works loaned from other collections, changing its shows every couple of years.

Using innovative technology, the new gallery cleverly connects these sometimes centuries-old artifacts to the current-day communities that originally created them. Explaining the approach, MOA’s Karen Duffek—one of the curators behind the project—talks us through the collection, the gallery and the opening exhibition.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the new Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks?

A: It’s very different to our other galleries! For instance, wall projections show the exhibited artworks being handled and discussed by contemporary artists and people from their communities. And there are two “idea chairs” embedded with speakers so you can sit and listen to everything from spoken word poetry to artist Clyde Tallio talking about masks from his Bella Coola community. We’re trying to show that these objects are part of a living continuity with their communities.

Q: It sounds like a much more engaging way to view museum exhibits.

A: Yes, we’re challenging the idea that these objects are just things to be looked at. Visitors often view masterworks like [the ones in our collection] reverentially, but we want people to see them in a different light. We think visitors to the new gallery will be surprised to find not just beautiful objects, but also current ideas about politics, colonialism and community.

Raven Rattle – Tsimshian, c. 1880, Photo courtesy of UBC Public Affairs

Q: Where did the items from the collection come from?

A: Many of these objects were acquired at auctions around the world. This collector has been buying older as well as contemporary pieces for decades and she has a long association with MOA. 

Q: What’s in the collection?

A: It’s an amazing range of extraordinary works from many Northwest Coast communities, and it includes masks, carved dishes, bentwood boxes and textiles such as a button blanket with part of the design done in dentalium shells. There’s also a chair, model canoe and even a Haida carving of a rifle.

Q: Do you have a favourite object?

A: There’s an intriguing little tusk carving, probably from the handle of a dagger: a bear head with a human figure emerging from inside it. It’s beautiful, but it also speaks to the story of duality and transformation and how, in Northwest Coast art, two beings can occupy the same space at the same time.

Q: What does this donation mean for MOA?

A: The historical pieces add a far greater time-depth to our collection. But the donation also means that many of these phenomenal objects—often hidden in private collections for years—will be much more accessible to the public.