We almost didn't bother. With only a few days in which to see the many sights Vancouver has to offer, visiting the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) meant using up valuable time to travel out of the city centre. Besides, the word "anthropology" has such a dry, scientific ring to it. Why should we make the effort to go there, when there were plenty of other perfectly interesting-sounding places within walking distance? Then I came across the photograph that changed my mind. As soon as I saw it in one of our guidebooks, I knew I would be prepared to crawl for miles on my hands and knees to get to the MOA. What was this image that so captured my imagination? Be patient and, first of all, let me take you on a little journey... The place we're headed for, the Museum of Anthropology, can be found at 6393 N W Marine Drive, on the cliffs of Point Grey. In order to get there, we're going to need some transport. Those of you with a car will need to cross south of the city centre and head west on 4th Avenue, which leads straight on to Chancellor Boulevard, before becoming N W Marine Drive. The MOA's metered parking area is signposted on the right hand side. If, like us, you're relying on public transport, catch either bus number 4 or 10 in the direction of "UBC" and get off at the University of British Columbia terminus, after an approximately half-hour's journey. From there, turn right down East Mall and continue until you turn left into N W Marine Drive. Look out for the MOA signposted on the right. This walk should take around 15 minutes. You'll then be presented with a strange building, constructed in 1976 from concrete and glass. At first sight, it appears ugly, yet when you see the back of the place, it all suddenly makes sense. Again, all will be revealed later. Apparently, the setting for this museum is amazing, with a backdrop of mountains and ocean. Sadly,
the often present Vancouver rain obscures our view. But that's not why we're here, is it? Let's venture inside, through the magnificent carved red cedar doors, which were created by four British Columbian Gitxsan artists. When these doors are shut, they resemble a "bent box" - a traditional container, used for holding water or storing food. Naturally, being in British Columbia, although this museum contains exhibits from many parts of the world, the emphasis is placed on the native people of the area, collectively known as "the First Nations". We come first of all to the Lobby, where you purchase your entrance ticket (see end for prices). The museum shop (which sells lots of interesting items inspired by First Nations traditions and art) and the lavatories are also situated here. You'll notice that the ambience in the Lobby changes as you walk further towards the exhibits. The lighting becomes more sombre and displays are highlighted by either small spotlights or natural light. This lends a hushed, almost spiritual feel to the place, giving the impression that the objects you are seeing are very precious. As you continue onwards, you will come to see that they are indeed extremely precious, but in so much more than a monetary sense. Now we are going to follow the Ramp from the Lobby. As we move along it, you will see on either side various objects from the Vancouver area, including Kwakwaka'wakw house posts, remains of Haida totem poles, canoes and bent boxes. Look closely at these items and you can teach yourself to distinguish between the different animals depicted in the stylised carvings - wolves, bears, cougars, ravens, eagles, orcas, spirits, mythical creatures and men. (I'm sure children would love to do this! Perhaps they could even try to imagine the stories that inspired them?) Sadly, they are not fully labelled. The museum has gathered what information it
could, but these objects are pretty old and perhaps their meanings have been forgotten. Perhaps also the scarcity of information on the labelling has something to do with the fact that "only those who know and have the right to the stories can tell the meaning of a totem pole". I love that idea: families sharing their tales and legends, depicting them pictorially in ways that only they can decipher. What a sense of belonging that must create. At the end of the Ramp, you arrive at the Crossroads and Information Desk. Obviously, this is the place to come if you wish to ask questions about the exhibits, and is staffed by volunteers. Go to the left, and you will see a counter containing albums known as Source Books. These may not look terribly appealing at first glance, but if you'd like to learn more about the kinds of people who created these wonderfully and powerfully carved objects, I would highly recommend that you stop for a while to take a look. Just like family albums, each Source Book was compiled by a member of the First Nations, with great care, to show moments worthy of remembrance. From potlatches (great spiritual and creative festivals where the Nations would celebrate their culture, banned by the British government as being unsuitable for civilised British citizens) to formally posed photographs and more mundane images of everyday life. Viewing these pictures feels almost like being invited into the compiler's own home. Reading the captions, you can sense the pride and pleasure that each person seems to possess in sharing their most precious memories with you. The effect is extremely touching. If you carry on up that same branch of the Crossroads, there is a doorway leading to the Koerner Ceramics Gallery. You may wish to take a look if, like me, you are particularly interested in ceramics, otherwise (especially if time is short) you might prefer to skip this area. The Gallery's
collection of over 600 European ceramics, dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, was donated to the museum by Dr Walter Koerner and includes some very interesting examples of early European earthenware and stoneware. Now, we return to the Crossroads and walk onwards towards the Great Hall. As you approach it, you can begin to see daylight flooding in and soon find yourself in an impressive large open area, made up of 15 metre-high walls of glass. This gives an incredible open air sensation. The Great Hall was specially constructed to house large totem poles, figures and doorposts. Many of these wooden sentinels are over 150 years old and are astonishingly well preserved when you consider their age and the fact they have spent much of their existence outdoors, exposed to the elements. These make a stunning, unmissable display. Continuing onwards, we turn right out of the Great Hall into an area devoted to "Gathering Strength: New Generations in Northwest Coast Art". This is a recent display, created in 1999, in order to strengthen the Museum's ties with the present day First Nations people. Here you will see exactly how the artistry and skills that have been passed down from generation unto generation have developed and evolved into contemporary life. For many years, the native people seemed to lose their way. Their land had been taken from them and important parts of their cultural identity banned, so many took refuge in alcohol and turned their backs on their heritage. Thankfully, there has been something of a renaissance in latter times and these people are once again beginning to cherish their traditions and history. A new pride is returning to them. When you walk through these exhibits, that pride shines out from the weavings, baskets, carvings, masks and jewellery they have created. Captions tell how grandmothers, mothers and daughters, grandfathers, fathers and sons form chains of inherited knowledge.
"My grandfather told me about a person that kept the stories, and I realised that in 20 years, 'who is going to know that there was a guy called the Smart One?' So I drew him out and I carved him. He turned out better than I ever thought. It was an honour just to be a part of him." - Dempsey Bob "Our connection with the animals, our connection with the trees - everything is a gift. Our people built a culture around what God gave us. Now we live in another culture. Our people had to learn how to survive. Now we are strengthening our culture." - Robert Hall Passing between the two yellow cedar pillars that make up the beautiful and intriguing sculpture entitled "Shaking the Crown's bones" (representing "a connection to time immemorial, a conscience oblivious to the chaos of colonization"), we follow the passage along until we arrive at the Visible Storage area. Now if you've ever wanted to rummage through attics searching for hidden treasure, you'll enjoy this section very much. In order to enable the public to view as much of the Museum's collections as possible, over 14,000 objects have been put on display here. These have been collected from all over the world and seemed to enthrall the pupils we saw on a school trip. Not only can you browse through the large glass display cabinets, you can also search through drawerful after drawerful of neatly arranged items. You can refer to data books if you wish to research specific objects, or you can do as I did - just randomly wander and surprise yourself with what you find. (I loved the little Hindu tabby cat. Look out for him!) The final thing I wanted to show you in the interior of the museum is, for me, the most special. I saved it until last because, once you've seen it, you may wish to spend some time just contemplating it. If you follow the passageway outside the Visible Storage area,
you will come across the Rotunda on the right. There, beneath the circular clear glass Rotunda roof, is the very thing in the guidebook photograph that drew me to this place in the beginning. In 1973, celebrated Haida First Nations artist Bill Reid was commissioned to create a sculpture for the MOA, based on a miniature boxwood carving he had previously made (also on display nearby). And so "The Raven and the First Men", based on a traditional story, came into being. After the Great Flood, the insatiably curious and mischievous Raven was flying around when he spotted a large clamshell. He perched himself upon it and noticed that there were strange creatures wriggling inside. Little by little, he managed to wheedle and coax these odd beings out of their hiding place. The Raven had seen nothing like these two-legged animals before. And so the First Men were discovered. The photograph I orginally saw of this sculpture in no way did it justice. The yellow cedar wood, from which it was made, becomes almost incandescent as the rays of the sun pour down upon it, giving life to the heavily stylised figures of the Raven and the First Men within the great shell. There is so much movement in the piece that I swear you can almost see the men-creatures squirming. If you stay for a while on the seating area surrounding the sculpture, it is interesting to listen to the reactions of others as they sit there, equally fascinated and entranced by the graceful curved forms and lines of the carving. They talk not in hushed, reverential tones, but rather in a kind of calm, restful rapture. It's the sort of artwork that your eyes actually enjoy sweeping over - a kind of sculptural ocular massage, if you like! You're left with a great feeling of peace and a heart full to brimming. Finally, we make our way back to the Lobby and outside again. Let's hope it's stopped raining for a while as we walk along to th
e back of the Museum building. In the grounds here, we can see two replica Haida long houses, with their doorposts and totem poles. These give us an interesting chance to see how the exhibits inside might have looked when they were actually in use. Looking towards the Museum building, we can now see the exterior of the Great Hall, and the reason for its style of construction becomes apparent. The appearance was designed "to reflect the post-and-beam structures of Northwest Coast First Nations". And it truly does! This museum proves that anthropology is not just a dry, dusty science, but rather a study of the living, breathing connection between history and today. I am so glad that we took the time to visit. The place itself and the precious objects it holds safe inspired me more than I can begin to tell you. Whether you are young or old, I believe you will find something here to move you, too. Do you know what really struck me during my visit? I was impressed by the strong feeling of belonging and of continuity. It reminded me so much of my native Northumbria. Let me leave you with two quotations to show you what I mean... "We remember where we come from." Robert Hall (BC First Nations artist) "Becas of whaat we hev been, we still are!" Fred Reed (Northumbrian dialect poet) ************************** USEFUL INFORMATION (Up-to-date at time of writing, please check before travelling): Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, 6393 N W Marine Drive Vancouver British Columbia V6T 1Z2 Telephone: 604-822-5087 Website address: www.moa.ubc.ca Admission (in Canadian dollars): $7 adult, Seniors $5 Student (under 18 or with student ID) $4 Family (2 adults + up to 4 children under 18) $20 Children 6 and under free Free entry for everyone on Tuesday evenings
from 5pm to 9pm Opening hours: Mid-May to early September - 10am to 5pm daily (open until 9pm on Tuesdays) Early September to mid-May - Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 5pm, Tuesdays from 11am to 9pm Free guided walks are available. Ring 604-822-5087 for times and details. There are currently no eating or refreshment facilities on site. ********************** A FEW RELATED PLACES TO VISIT IN VANCOUVER: Bill Reid's sublime bronze "Jade Canoe" sculpture in the main lobby at Vancouver Airport. Vancouver Museum - 1100 Chestnut Street (Telephone 604-736-4431). Covers Vancouver's history, including that of the indigenous peoples. The Emily Carr Collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery - 750 Hornby Street (Telephone 604-662-4700). Emily Carr was born in 1871 in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Amongst her favourite subjects to paint were the people of the First Nations, producing extraordinary images of them going about their daily lives. Stanley Park - entrance off West Georgia Street. Includes a good collection of totem poles from various First Nations and Siwash Rock, the setting of a native legend.