The Grand Hall: First Peoples of Canada’s Northwest Coast

  • The Grand Hall: First Peoples of Canada’s Northwest Coast
    by Leslie Tepper
  • Treasures of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives
    by Jack Lohman, compiler

Reviewed by Hannah Turner

These two volumes present an impressive view of Canadian museology as it has evolved over the past thirty years. Leslie Tepper’s The Grand Hall, an updated and revised version of Andrea Laforet’s The Book of the Grand Hall (1992), is a popular and accessible guide to the spectacular Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History (CMH), featuring the people and traditions of the Northwest Coast culture area and incorporating aboriginal art practices and intellectual contributions in the built form of an exhibit space. A massive immersive exhibit, the Grand Hall contributes to scholarly and popular perceptions of the art and architecture of the Pacific coast -- despite being over 4500 kilometres away. With new additions of text, images, and contributing voices, The Grand Hall documents the historical origins of this space and welcomes First Nations voices to the descriptions of the CMH collection, for example, that of Meghann O’Brien, the Haida-Kwakwaka’wakw-Irish textile artist, who describes her experience as a weaver. O’Brien foregrounds the materiality of the bark in her weaving, and Tepper, by pairing her story with an image of a basket in the CMH collection, presents a cultural history of berry-picking that is brought alive through reading the object (64).  These short but necessary stories make this a useful guide to the CMH collections.

While The Grand Hall contributes invaluable contextual information about exhibit development, which is any museum’s necessary outer façade, the second volume documents aspects of museum work that take place behind the scenes and outside and apart from the official narratives of display that are presented for public engagement. In Treasures of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, Jack Lohman, the CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM), and four RBCM curators and archivists (Martha Black, Richard Hebda, Grant Keddie, and Gary Mitchell), provide curatorial essays that reveal the detailed work of the specialists and scholars who document and analyze the collections. These essays remind us that modern museum work involves more than creating a clean and tidy educational narrative; it also, for example, involves conducting new research and bringing ideals of collaboration into the core of practice, not just as a tactic used in visual display. Treasures argues that museums, as sites of knowledge production, must continuously examine the collections that are their foundations. Black, for example, in her history of the ethnographic collections at the RBCM, argues that we should be attentive to the nineteenth century classifications that are manifest in museum documentation. She documents the changing relations between RBCM curators and First Nations and emphasizes early collaborative efforts that resulted in the inclusion of First Nations ways of knowing in visual displays. Moreover, by understanding the diversity and richness of First Nations languages, “old museum classifications can be overwritten with First Nations histories and intellectual concepts” (66).

By incorporating essays from across departments and disciplines, Treasures masterfully weaves a narrative that explores the interconnections between natural, cultural, and historical spheres. Although the concept of the “natural history museum” may seem outdated with the emergence of community-centred institutions, subject-specific museums, and even science centres, Lohman emphasizes that we are all connected to the places and times in which we live, and bound by the natural world and the cultural histories that have come to define our places within the world. Similarly Hebda, in his essay, implores us to appreciate the BC landscape and the importance of understanding our relationship to the environment.

With its combination of ethnography, archaeology, natural sciences, and the archives, this volume is not only beautifully illustrated: in its very form it mirrors an argument for an increased connection between disciplines whose boundaries are still regularly upheld, and with essays that span disciplines and decades, and even eons, Lohman et al. demonstrate that the natural history museum can be the ideal venue for conversations that are both historically important and contemporarily relevant.

Both volumes advocate for sustaining the rich and diverse collections in Victoria and Ottawa and suggest ways that new knowledge can be gleaned from a deep recognition and respect of the traditions of the First Peoples of the Pacific coast. For example, in his foreword to Treasures, former Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point describes visiting the First Nations big house at the RBCM. He dwells not on the construction of the exhibits, or the intellectual history that devised and is inscribed on exhibit labels and texts, but on the smell of cedar that permeates the big house. For Point, the cedar smell invites and imagines an emotionally charged experience at the museum. He argues, and I agree, that these affective experiences are ultimately important for museums to remain “a part of an ongoing story” (16). As the RBCM and CMH, and other museums, try to reach new audiences and, through new technology, strive to become a part of contemporary public discourse, we must remember the important contemplative and affective spaces created when people are in the presence of sacred and ancient material objects. Readers of these volumes will readily appreciate Point’s sentiments after viewing the towering house posts and poles and contemplating the images and dioramas of archival photographs of age-old cedars described and portrayed in Treasures and The Grand Hall. Telling the stories of how museums create these powerful spaces continues to ignite curiosity and wonder.

The Grand Hall: First Peoples of Canada’s Northwest Coast
Leslie Tepper
Gatineau: Canadian Museum of History, 2014. 108 pp. $9.95 paper

Treasures of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives
Jack Lohman, compiler
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2015. 144 pp. $39.95 cloth

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016