November 02, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

When museum artifacts go home 

The Museum of Vancouver embrace "repatriation" but returning relics is not without controversy


By Kate Follington, The Tyee

At the end of a labyrinth of hallways in the Museum of Vancouver, behind two large double doors, 70,000 pieces of priceless heirlooms are hidden away. It's a breathtaking collection: historical wood carvings, First Nations masks, an entire wall of deer horns and moose heads, railway paraphernalia, and row upon row of carefully wrapped ball gowns. Sitting on shelves 100 feet deep and 10 feet high, the items have been carefully placed and numbered according to theme, ranging from textiles and gold mining, to gaudy neon signs like the Blue Eagle Café, just one of 55 signs in the neon collection.

Wandering past wide-eyed heads of elk, deer and caribou, there's an almost cinematic feel to the space. Vancouver's history, unfolding from aisle to aisle. But where did it all come from, who does it belong to, and who should own it now? Returning historical objects to their original communities -- a process known as repatriation -- is an arduous, expensive process for any museum, and not without controversy. But for the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), it represents a critical part of the growing role of museums in forging stronger cultural ties with First Nations communities around the globe, and it starts with a cloak.


Discovering the korowai

Examining the MOV's collection over 20 years ago, a textile expert from New Zealand immediately recognized a particularly interesting Maori cloak. The cloak, or korowai, was woven with flax, its threads dyed a dark brown. Toi Te Rito Maihi knew it to be originally stemming from the Wairoa area of Northern New Zealand, an area known for its distinct, iron-rich mud.

Like many pieces in the Museum's collection, the cloak was treasured and preserved for decades by a Vancouver family before it was finally handed over to the museum for ongoing preservation. The cloak has been passed around B.C. for some time. According to the current head of collections and exhibitions Joan Seidl, it belonged to Sir James Carroll, a Maori leader and politician who championed the cause of Maori land rights. Traveling to Vancouver around 1916, Carroll presented the cloak to the family of George Ham, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Ham's descendant, Joan Myers, played keeper to the cloak until 1986, when she presented it to the museum for safekeeping. Four years later, Maihi saw the cloak in the collection and heard its story. She grew excited, researched, and confirmed the piece had considerable value to the Maori culture.

The enthusiastic textile expert returned to New Zealand, the memory of the cloak floating in her mind. The disconnect between the cloak's then-resting place within the tagged items of MOV's collection, and the spiritual significance of the piece to the Maori people of Wairoa, would niggle at Maihi for 20 years.

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