Located on the grounds of the University of British Columbia, the renowned Museum of Anthropology showcases cultures from around the world with a special emphasis on Pacific Northwest First Nations
The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the beautiful University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, British Columbia is renowned for its exhibits of worlds arts and culture with a special emphasis on Canada’s First Nations people and other cultural communities of British Columbia, Canada.
As you enter the Great Hall, you are greeted with a collection of First Nations sculptures.
Displayed against a tall glass wall with views of the forests and mountains along the Salish Sea, the sculptures create an impressive welcome. The museum, which opened in 1976, was designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson to sit on a steep promontory. The design was inspired by the cedar post and beam construction found in traditional Northwest Coast First Nations villages.
Information beside the above exhibit talked about how totem poles, both those preserved in museums and those allowed to remain on their original sites, have become central to debates about cultural heritage and the roles of museums and First Nations in their ownership, care, and display. In the 1950s several historical totem poles were purchased, removed from original village sites and relocated to museums in Victoria and Vancouver in order to protect the poles from vandalism and decay.
During the 18th and 19th centuries totem poles were raised as markers of important events. They were allowed to age and eventually fall to the earth. New poles would be raised as community life continued. However, with the impacts of Christianization, anti-potlatch laws, and changing economies, few poles were raised between 1900 and 1969. In 1969, the Haida community at Old Massett gathered to celebrate Robert Davidson’s Mother Bear pole, the first pole carved and raised there in the 20th century. (Note: A potlatch is a ceremony that is part of the cultural and spiritual traditions of various First Nations on the Northwest Coast of North America. It was held on the occasion of special events, such as marriages, births and funerals. It was often the ceremony in which totem poles were erected.)
MOA collaborated with First Nations communities across British Columbia, as well as Pacific Islanders, Africans, Asians and Latin Americans, to display the Museum’s collections. Exhibits are not necessarily grouped by provenance, usage or type, but according to Indigenous criteria. Some are grouped by ceremonies in which they were used. In his welcome message on the museum’s web page, the Director says, “These galleries embody the idea that there is never just one way of knowing and seeing the world.”
That collaboration and respect for cultures has created a fascinating experience for museum visitors.
The galleries contain items from around the world. The message on the front of the museum map I used to guide my way through the museum said, “Welcome to the MOA where thousands of objects tell thousands of stories.” Items are displayed in exhibit cases with fibre optic lighting and in a system of drawers. The information on the museum map also said, “opening a single drawer can reveal treasures from the past.”
The University of British Columbia grounds, surrounded by forest and situated along the water, are beautiful and provide a lovely setting for the museum’s outdoor exhibit, which includes two Haida houses and numerous poles created between 1959 and 2000.
The manner in which the exhibits at the Museum of Anthropology are displayed leads to a joyful sense of discovery. One can easily spend several hours at the Museum of Anthropology. The sheer number of exhibits leaves plenty to discover on subsequent visits. Whether you plan an all-day visit, a series of successive visits, or a one or two-hour visit, the MOA is well worth seeing. The Museum is open daily through the summer and six days a week (closed on Mondays) during the winter.
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