ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

I've been to Vancouver several times and have known about the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia for a long time. I had never visited until this trip. Why not? I find myself unable to focus in museums when I'm travelling because I keep thinking I should be outside. Especially so when I am enjoying the beautiful summer weather on the west coast. At the same time, I think it is shocking that a person whose Honour's Degree was in Anthropology and Religion had never taken the time to view this Museum. The visit was long overdue.

I have one thing to say. Why did I wait so long?? This may very well be the best museum I've ever visited. The Museum of Anthropology is a treasure trove of First Nations art and culture.

Let's start with Haida artist Bill Reid (1920-1998). I've been aware of his work for at least a decade, due in part to a trip to Haida Gwaii in 2006, and also due to seeing his amazing sculpture called Spirit of Haida Gwaii (photo below) in the Canadian Museum of History in my own city. Haida Gwaii is an island on the Northwest coast of British Columbia, and the ancestral home of the Haida people.

You will find Bill Reid's work on our Canadian $20 bill:

Seeing Reid's carving, The Raven and the First Men (1980), was the highlight of my visit to this Museum. There is an entire section of the museum devoted to him, with a beautiful spherical shaped sky light shining over the sculpture that represents his interpretation of the Haida creation story. 

You can read about the story here, but in a nutshell (or perhaps I should say a clamshell ;-) it involves Raven coaxing the first humans from out of a clam shell. Just click on the image and a larger one will open up.

Here's a bit more information, and an explanation of how Reid changed the nature of Haida Art.

OK, I think I took photos from every angle. I find this piece very powerful. If all I had seen at the Museum was this carving, it would have been worth the price of admission. But I saw so much more!

I've tried as best I could to also photograph the text and explanations for each piece. Photography is allowed at the Museum as long as one does not use a flash.

The great hall is enclosed with glass, and the good lighting makes it easier to photograph the works without flash.

Cedar Man is a carved welcome figure found on Meares Island. This one by Joe David, of the Tla-o-qui-aht tribe, 1984.
You can read here about how it was used in logging protests.

In the 1950's the British Columbia Totem Pole Preservation Committee took what was left of totem poles in danger of being damaged and lost due to the elements and relocated them to museums. Many of these came from Haida Gwaii, although some remain there.


When the Europeans settlers arrived at Haida Gwaii, the Haida people had already been carving totem poles since the 1700's. After European contact, there seems to have been an increase. The totem pole below is believed to be about 160 years old

It may have been an interior home post.

After European contact, indigenous peoples expressed the experience of colonization in their art. In this piece, the winged angel, shotgun and american eagle represent the conflict and violence, as well as the resistance to the imposition of European ideas.

Ceremonial figure from Kwakwaka'wakw culture.


Kwakwaka'wakw heirlooms, including blanket boxes, and a wooden dish in foreground.

This is just a small sampling of what is on display at the Museum of Anthropology. I hope you will have a chance to visit and that you will find it as moving and fascinating as I did.


  1. Replies
    1. You would love it even more in person Mary. I hope to go back and see in more depth.

  2. The word amazing is often overused, not in this case AMAZING!!!!. Thanks for the tour.

  3. It is an amazing place Jo. Glad you enjoyed the tour.


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