Putting the Artifacts Back Where They Belong

Posted by Daniel on Sep 14, 2010 - 3 comments

News comes this week that the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, are repatriating 276 artifacts to the Nisga'a people of the Nass Valley. Most of these items -- masks, rattles, blankets, even a totem pole -- were taken, traded or purchased from the Nisga'a during the great "museum scramble" of the late 19th-early 20th centuries when collectors representing museums from around the world descended on coastal villages and stripped them of their cultural artifacts.

The repatriation to the Nisga'a is certainly not the first. The collections at the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay and the Kwagiulth Museum on Quadra Island are both based on objects seized by police during an illegal potlatch celebration in 1921 and not returned until 1979-80. And earlier this summer a totem pole from Jasper was relocated back to Haida Gwaii.

Many of the items repatriated from the RBCM were collected by Charles Frederic Newcombe. Newcombe was born in Scotland in 1851 and arrived in Victoria with his wife and children to live in 1889. Trained in medicine, he was the province's first psychiatrist, but when he wasn't seeing patients he indulged his interests as an amateur naturalist and collector of First Nations artifacts.

Eventually Newcombe worked as a salaried collector for the Field Museum in Chicago, travelling widely on the coast gathering material for the museum's collection, including huge poles, a whaling canoe and human skeletal remains. (I saw many of these items on display when I visited the Field earlier this year.) Then, especially in the years before World War One, he made many acquisitions for the RBCM and it is some of these items that are being repatriated.

Newcombe was one of the most respected collectors on the coast during the period of the museum scramble. His services were in demand by all the leading museums in North America and Europe and he was active in the field into his seventies. (He died in 1924).

Today the museum collectors are often portrayed as pillagers and thieves but at the time their motives were less mercenary than scientific. They genuinely believed, along with everyone else, that First Nations were soon going to disappear and they saw themselves as preserving evidence of dying cultures for future generations. It turns out they were wrong, and now the flow of artifacts is in the opposite direction, back into the hands of the peoples who created them in the first place.