A Visit to the Field Museum

Posted by Daniel on Jun 18, 2010 - 5 comments

I visited Chicago for the first time this past week and my neck is sore from all the craning. An amazing collection of buildings, both historic and modern.

On my last morning I trekked over to the Field Museum, an enormous monument to
nineteenth century scientific collecting. A totem pole carved by Norman Tait, a Nisga'a carver from Kincolith (photo above), stands at the north entrance to the building. It was erected in 1982 for an exhibit about northwest coast First Nations.

There are another couple of coastal poles in the museum's great hall, right beside the mastodon and the full-size skeleton of a T-Rex named Sue. But what mainly drew me to the Field was its collection of artifacts gathered from villages all over the BC coast.

The Field, which is a natural history museum, opened in 1893 on the grounds of that year's World Columbian Exposition hosted by the city. It takes its name from Marshall Field, the department store tycoon and major benefactor. It was one of several museums -- the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History were others -- that took part in the so-called "museum scramble" of the late-nineteenth/early twentieth century when collectors descended on the BC coast to take away artifacts to stuff their display cabinets in New York, Washington, Berlin -- and Chicago. By World War One the mad rush was over because there was so little left. (Historian Doug Cole described the scramble in 1985 in his marvelous book, Captured Heritage.)

I saw many of the artifacts from BC still on display at the Field, crowded into old-fashioned glass cases in dimly-lit rooms. There are poles and house posts, bowls, cedar chests, masks, regalia and utensils of all sorts obtained from the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakawaka'wakw, Nootka and Salish peoples.

The impact is depressing, to see the objects of these vibrant cultures gathering dust so far from where they belong.