Museum of Anthropology unveils new gallery exhibit
By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor
The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s brand-new gallery highlights the history and continued resonance of First Nations art and artistry.
The Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks opened its doors to its first-ever exhibit, In a Different Light: Reflecting on Northwest Coast Art, on June 22. The exhibit features over 110 objects and artworks, complemented by displays of text, light, sound, and video that connect a museumgoer to contemporary Indigenous artists and, through them, to the countless generations of First Nations peoples who shaped these artefacts and the culture behind them.
The physical space of the gallery itself is a marvel. A 210-square-metre room located in one corner of the Museum of Anthropology, the gallery gives an immediate impression of serenity and seclusion apart from the rest of the museum. The smaller, relatively dimly-lit space, far from feeling confining, exudes an immersive and personal atmosphere. Screens mounted on the walls and speakers throughout the room play video clips and interviews with contemporary artists talking about the process of creation and cultural celebration. The room also features swivelling chairs that are activated when a visitor sits down, intimately engaging them with audio clips.
The items in the exhibit are grouped around themes such as “declaring,” “embodying,” “transcending,” and “witnessing,” and the objects are accompanied with quotes from contemporary artists about the artists’ impressions and interpretations of the pieces. Reading their words in relation to the artefacts themselves imbues the viewer with a profound sense of chronological reach—these ancient artefacts are being continuously rediscovered, and interacting with the art gives new meaning both to the past and present understandings of Indigenous Northwest Coast culture.
The exhibit emphasizes the value of these artefacts, many of which serve dually as practical everyday items as well as pieces of incredible craftsmanship. For example, the spindle whorls were used for spinning wool, but they’re also very intricately carved with designs of people and animals. Fish hooks, daggers, needles, and a variety of other tools similarly demonstrate the merger of pragmatism and exquisite design. The tiny woven trinket baskets are particularly charming examples of artisanry. Some of these baskets are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, and a viewer cannot fail to appreciate the skill and patience that must have gone into meticulously creating such delicate items.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of the collection—and the one most demonstrative of the state-of-the-art gallery’s sleek design—is the over-200-year-old Tsimshian wood painting displayed against one wall of the gallery. Having faded with age, most of the painting is indiscernible at a glance, and it looks merely like a 4-meter-tall piece of cedar—but when visitors place a hand on a special sensor, the wooden planks become illuminated, and you can see the traces of the intricate painting outlined by the selective lighting.
However, the culture of the Northwest Coast peoples is far from being only visible as faded remnants. Thanks to the preservation efforts of anthropologists and the reimagining of contemporary artists, this culture remains alive and evolving. The gallery exhibit demonstrates that the peoples of the Northwest Coast continue to interact with, and bring light to, their art and heritage.
UBC’s Museum of Anthropology is located, like the rest of the university’s Point Grey campus, on the unceded territory of the Musqueam people. The Museum has many more fantastic exhibits to showcase, with one of the most comprehensive collections of First Nations art and artefacts in the world, and its newest gallery is an invaluable addition to these other offerings. In a Different Light is scheduled to be on display until spring 2019.