Thursday, 1 September 2016

One of my Favourite Objects

Detail of house pole 1901.39.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
One of my favourite objects in the Museum is a carved wooden bowl from British Columbia (1887.1.632). It is carved to represent a beaver with a human face carved in the top side of the bowl. The carving is very stylistically striking using a prominent feature of indigenous art of the Northwest Coast of North America called formline. Formline is the term used to describe the distinctive style comprising ‘continuous, flowing curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner. They are used for figure outlines, internal design elements and in abstract compositions’ (Marjorie M. Haplin. “Northwest Coast Native Art”). In 2009 I was lucky enough to be part of the project team recording information from a research visit of a delegation of Haida people. This object was viewed as part of that visit. During their time here I was able to learn a great deal about the collection of Haida objects that feature prominently in the Museum’s displays, not least the imposing house pole (1901.39.1) which is positioned centrally in the Museum Court.  

The bowl was donated by Reverend W. Warner Parry to the University Museum and was part of a large number of ethnographic objects transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1886. From the accession entry we do not know if the bowl was also collected by Parry or if it came to him through a third party. Parry was part of the British Royal Navy and so it is possible that he travelled to the Northwest coast of America and acquired the bowl in person. A label glued to the side of the object tells us that the bowl was ‘from an Indian burial ground. Maple Bank Esquimault, Vancouver Island’. The bowl is interesting as despite its provenance having been recorded it is unlikely to have originated at Esquimault. In fact, the Haida tribal members who visited in 2009 confirmed the bowl as Haida in origin. However, the style of the bowl is markedly different from all the other Haida grease bowls in the collection. The bowl is one of three bowls with carved with the beaver motif in the Museum collections, the other two coming from the original Pitt Rivers founding collection that came to the Museum in 1884.

Beaver bowl 1884.68.48 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Beaver bowl 1884.68.58 © Pitt Rivers Museum 
The symbol of the beaver in Northwest coast tradition represents the values of productivity, creativity, creation, cooperation, persistence and harmony. The beaver is also serious and hardworking. We have a number of objects with the beaver totem from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the North coast of British Columbia formally known as the Queen Charlotte islands. Many are associated with rank, status and prestige. Indeed, the beaver bowl is on display in the Museum in a display case of the same title (case 58.A), such beautifully carved and handmade objects belonged to significant Haida families.

It is the exquisite carving and anthropomorphic nature of the beaver which appeals to me so much in the design of the bowl. The Haida I met in 2009 were warm and animated people, it is through them that the objects I had spent time passively observing came alive and spoke of the people who made them and used them in their former life before they became a part of a Museum collection.

Faye Belsey 
Assistant Curator

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