Posted by: Joan Seidl on June 18, 2012 at 4:46 pm

On Thursday I  returned from Churn Creek with my coworkers, having completed repatriation of the petroglyph to the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation.  I am still coming down from the intense excitement, anxiety, and joy of the previous three days.

On Monday, June 11, after two years of work and months of intense planning, the MOV welcomed members of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, including Councilor Dean Tenale; elders Mary Boston, Theresa Jack, and Rose Wilson; and teaching staff, parents and children from Rosie Seymour School at Canoe Creek (returning from a field trip to Victoria). We had lunch in a wonderful room overlooking the water, where Wade Grant from the Musqueam First Nation welcomed everyone to Coast Salish territory. We adjourned to the rock’s location in the courtyard for a ceremony led by Chief Fred Robbins and Irvine Johnson from the Es’ketemc First Nation and Spiritual Leader Gwen Therrian from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation who lives in Vancouver.  Around the rock, the people from Canoe Creek and Dog Creek placed branches of sage, juniper, and wild rose, intense with the smells of the high grasslands. Gwen involved everyone in the ceremony, blessing Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver councilors Andrea Reimer, Geoff Meggs, and Adrienne Carr as well as MOV board and staff, and sharing the pipe with the First Nations people.

Moving the petroglyph from the courtyard

We thought the next day would be easy: we just had to move the rock on to a truck.  We hired the very professional Pro-Tech Movers (who had previously moved totem poles and other large, awkward objects for the MOV).  Their crew of four guys arrived at 8 am and by 10 am had wrapped the rock carefully in blankets and straps, erected a portable gantry crane over it, and lifted it on to a palette.  Then, for the next six hours, we watched as the crew tried first one thing and then another to no avail: they could not get the rock out of the courtyard.  The courtyard is so cramped that their equipment could scarcely be used. Poor guys – struggling inside the courtyard while the folks from Canoe Creek, Dog Creek, and the MOV sat on chairs lined up outside the glass walls watching it all.

As the hours passed, we bonded in boredom, desperation and jokes (about the comeliness of the various guys and our apparent error in failing to bring in a team of ten horses, as used in the 1926 move). About 3:30 pm, Chief Hank Adam arrived from Dog Creek (he had to miss Monday’s ceremony because of a death in his family.) Chief Hank brought renewed energy to the gathering. About 4 pm to great applause, the forklift and come-along pulled the palette jack loaded with the rock out of the courtyard and into the lower lobby.  From there it was quick and easy.  By 5 pm, Pro-Tech’s large forklift lifted the rock gently on to the bed of the truck graciously provided by Caribou Interior Crane Services.

Returning the petroglyph to Churn Creek

I next saw the rock the following day, as we assembled with people from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation for the procession to bring the rock to its new resting place at the entrance to the Churn Creek Protected Area.  We walked near the back of the procession, following the school kids and leading the horses and riders, with the truck bringing up the very rear. The crane on the truck easily lifted the rock onto the resting place that BC Park Ranger Tom Hughes had prepared for it. It looked so small against the vast scale of the landscape.  How could it have confounded us for six hours back in Vancouver! The pecked glyphs that seemed so inscrutable in Vancouver showed up in sharp definition in the clear Cariboo air.

Elder Ron Ignace from Skeetchestn Band hosted the program which included remarks and a pipe ceremony by elder Arthur Dick and a presentation by Chief Hank.  In attendance, there were Secwepemc Elders and leadership from Adams Lake, Neskonlith, and Whispering Pines as well as a representative from Stl’atl’imc community Seton Lake.  There were a number of Tsilhqot'in First Nation supporters also in attendance.

At the end of the ceremony, they called up the four of us from the MOV (CEO Nancy Noble, Professor Bruce Miller of UBC, grad student Emily Birky, and myself), and the chiefs and Elders sang a song to us.  It was a playful song from the gambling game lahal that is used to distract and fake out opponents.  Chief Hank and Chief Fred Robbins had grins and twinkling eyes as they let us know that to their understanding they had used superior strategy to get their rock back!  There was laughter and tears, as the ceremony broke up and members of the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem approached the rock and laid their hands on it for the first time.

Make no mistake, there was a degree of anxiety in the air too. There were eight RCMP officers present; three were in red serge as pre-arranged decoration to the event.  The presence of the others had been requested by the Elders.  They had accompanied the rock from Williams Lake as there was concern that some members of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation felt that the rock should have been repatriated to them, and not to the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem, who are part of the larger Secwepemc Nation that includes 17 bands in the BC interior.

This is discouraging but understandable fallout from 150 years of colonialism in BC that has seen virtually no treaties signed with First Nations.  The Secwepemc and the Tsilhqot'in have overlapping, outstanding land claims, as do dozens of other BC First Nations. At the MOV we did due diligence to find the appropriate nation to whom to repatriate the rock. We researched the records thoroughly and consulted an expert in petroglyphs who knew the general area well. We approached the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem in good faith.  It is the MOV’s hope that the return of the rock will be an occasion for unity and empowerment among all the First Nations of the region. The decision to place the rock at Churn Creek may aid in this, as it’s a traditional gathering place and point of trade for many interior First Nations.

Meanwhile, back at the party, food (tons of it) followed - barbecued meat, corn on the cob, bannock, baked potatoes, and coleslaw.  There were giant sheet cakes decorated with frosting versions of the glyphs and the exhortation “Rock On!”.  An impromptu band played from the back of a pickup truck, including an ode to the rock created on the spot. Pretty soon we could hear drumming and singing in the distance, where a proper game of lahal had started. The teasing and baiting was intense as teams battled to bluff their opponents and show off their own skills.

Rock on cake

We left about sunset. As we drove away, we looked back at the rock. It looked right at home in that landscape, surrounded by the songs and drums of its people.

Posted by: Joan Seidl on June 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Museum of Vancouver conservation staff clean the petroglyph

For many years, I squinted at murky black and white photographs taken in 1926 showing a great petroglyph-covered rock as it was hauled away from the Fraser River somewhere in the interior. I despaired that we would ever know the rock’s original location with any certainty. It seemed that removing the rock back in 1926 had been utter folly. It felt against nature to even consider hauling a six ton rock from the interior of BC and move it to Vancouver. But driven by compulsion and arrogance (to my understanding), people did it, and the great rock now sits at the Museum of Vancouver after many years in Stanley Park.

For the last 20 years, the huge rock has lay in the Museum’s interior courtyard, its many petroglyphs slowly disappearing under a layer of moss and lichen. Next week, it will be repatriated to Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nations and taken back home to the Fraser River at Churn Creek Protected Area, about two hours east of Clinton.

The great rock has been on a long journey. In 1925, a gold prospector in the Cariboo named H.S. Brown came across the petroglyph partially hidden in a grove of cottonwood trees when he was fetching water near Crow’s Bar along the Fraser River. Brown was an admirer of the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson who was buried in Stanley Park after her death in 1913. His original plan was to sell his placer gold claim and use the proceeds to place the stone by her grave in Stanley Park. When Brown was unable to sell his claim, the chair of the Vancouver Park Board, W.C. Shelly, stepped in.

Shelly wanted the petroglyph in order to add it to the collection of totems poles, house posts, and other First Nations art that he was assembling from throughout BC in order to create a faux “Indian Village” in Stanley Park. (Shelly was apparently indifferent to the fact that the government was trying to evict the real Coast Salish settlements in the Park at the time).

Moving the rock (dubbed the “Cariboo Monolith” by news reporters) was a massive undertaking. Shelly hired Frank Cross to bring the rock out over land. Cross worked with a team of ten horses. It took a month to drag the rock up the 3,000 foot ascent from the bank of the Fraser River. Then, taking advantage of winter snow, Shelly’s team hauled the rock overland to the Pacific Great Eastern railhead and then down to Vancouver, where it was placed in Stanley Park, near the totem poles. Increasing incidents of vandalism led the Park Board to ask the Museum to look after the rock in the early 1990s. In 1992, the petroglyph was moved from Stanley Park to the Museum’s interior courtyard.

In 2010, Bruce Miller, an anthropology professor at UBC who also chairs MOV’s Collections Committee, brought the petroglyph to the attention of the Committee. Bruce explained the contemporary understanding of petroglyphs as highly sacred objects that are integral to their original sites (the power is in the place as well as the rock), and encouraged MOV to work towards repatriation. Bruce brought in archaeologist Chris Arnett who specializes in BC petroglyphs. We shared the documentation we had with Chris. After researching, Chris advised us that we ought to speak with the Canoe Creek Indian Band, now known as Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation, from whose territory the petroglyph had been taken without permission in 1926.

In September 2010 Chief Hank Adam and Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation visited the MOV to see the petroglyph and meet with our staff. In October, the First Nation formally requested repatriation. After working through the process required by MOV’s Collections Policy, the MOV’s Board of Directors voted to repatriate the petroglyph in March 2011 — lightning speed in the Museum business.

Meanwhile members of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem scouted the banks of the Fraser to find the rock’s original location. On a glorious day in late August 2011, Chief Adam led us to the exact spot where the rock had stood. It was a powerful experience — the Fraser rushing by, the sun beating down, velvety hills all around. Even the skeptics among us (me) were convinced when we held up the historical photographs of the petroglyph move in 1926 and matched up the silhouettes of the mountains, ridge for ridge. And then, standing there, Chief Adam said, “Look down.” At our feet were more rocks with petroglyphs — as the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation say, “sister rocks”. This was the place.

That brings us to today. We have been invited to join Chief Adam and the members of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation to the ceremony on June 11 that will begin the rock’s journey home. Over the past weeks, MOV’s conservator Carol Brynjolfson has carefully removed the moss and lichen. On June 12 Pro-Tech industrial movers will move the rock through the museum and on to a waiting truck for transport to Churn Creek. Then on Wednesday, June 13 it will be welcomed home by the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation at a ceremony at Churn Creek to which all are invited. I will be there, filled with joy to see this important work to completion. 

Posted by: Joan Seidl on February 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Down in the basement of MOV, we’ve been assembling a strange collection of female forms. These mannequins and body forms will wear glamorous garments in the upcoming Art Deco Chic exhibition opening March 8, 2012. However, in the meantime they are naked and exposed in all their bodily eccentricities.

MOV staff repairs mannequins for the Art Deco Chic exhibitionWe’ve been challenged to find mannequins that are the right size and shape to wear clothing from the 1920s and 1930s. Luckily, guest curators Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke collect vintage mannequins along with vintage clothing. Ivan’s 1920s mannequin was made by the firm of Pierre Imans of Paris. She has a beautifully modeled wax face, while her torso is wrapped in coarse muslin. You would not mistake her for a man, but possibly for a thirteen-year old girl. Her breasts are barely there, her waist minimal, and hips very slim. Her straight up and down figure was the ideal 1920s female body, designed to fit the era’s straight-cut, sack-like garments (more noted for their surface decoration than for their shaping).

Claus has a lovely mannequin from the late 1930s made by Fery-Boudrot of Paris (we’ve taken to calling her “the blonde”). She will wear an elegant outfit made in Germany or Austria, the areas in which Claus specializes. Many of the 1930s evening dresses depend for effect on flowing drapery and scarves. The backs of the dresses were especially elaborate so that the wearer looked good on the dance floor. We look forward to posing the blonde and her companions to show off these late 1930s garments to best advantage.

We turned to Kevin Smith from Arm & a Leg Mannequins Rental to help make up the numbers for the exhibit (which will have between 66 and 71 garments — the debates are still raging). Kevin provided a group of Rootstein figures from the 1990s with strongly modeled faces and moulded hair. First we tried evening dresses from the 1930s on the Rootsteins, but the dresses only came down to their shins. At 6’ tall, the Rootsteins are all leg. This led us to try garments from the late 1920s. By the late 1920s, the idea was to abbreviate the garment and show lots of leg. The classic flapper-style garments look great on these elegant Amazons.

The non-vintage mannequins will be painted a neutral colour (the exhibition designers, Matt Heximer and Sue Lepard from 10four Design Group, choose Benjamin Moore’s “Mannequin Cream”). Right now a crew headed by museum fabrication coordinator Dave Winstanley are sanding, priming, and spray painting the contemporary mannequins. We have to wind our way through a maze of bodies to have a word with Dave these days. He appears unimpressed by his female companions, and as he carefully sprays a selection of female arms dangling from the painting rack he points out the nearby “hand rail”, a long board that holds a hands upright for easy spraying.

If all goes well, our meticulous prep work will be invisible to visitors once the exhibition opens to the public on March 8. The point is to focus you on the amazing clothes, while the armature of display fades into the background.

Posted by: Joan Seidl on November 16, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Rob Gillette tube bendingRob Gillette is the man behind the bright neon glow of the Drake Hotel sign in MOV’s new exhibit Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver. Rob is a tube bender, one of the old-school artisans who makes magic with glass and rare gases. We visited Rob and his dog Blondy at his studio in Langley when he was getting some of the MOV’s vintage neon signs in working condition again. Rob was part of the team that exhibition sponsor Pattison Signs deployed to light up the signs once again.

The exhibition was an opportunity for Rob’s generation of tube benders to match skills with the old-timers who bent glass into Hootie the Owl’s kilt (in MOV’s Rexall “We Deliver” sign) and elaborate art deco script (as in MOV’s Williams Piano House sign).

Rob showed us how it was done. First, he fired up a gas flame, then he used both hands to manipulate a length of straight glass tubing in the flame until it was soft enough to bend, but not so soft that it dripped on the floor. He used his mouth and a thin hose to softly blow a current of air through the tubing, keeping the tube open even as he bent it into curves.

(For spectacular footage of a tube bender in action, check out the film Glowing in the Dark directed by Harry Killam and produced by Alan Goldman of Blueplate Productions, Vancouver.)

Neon sign tube bending stationOnce the tubing was shaped (in this case into the “ette” of Annette’s Dress Salon sign), Rob sealed the ends and prepared to load the gas. The flasks (known in the industry as ‘gas bombs’) that contain the rare gases are located in front of a wall covered with snapshots of enormous steelheads that Rob has caught on countless fishing trips. Rob carefully opened a valve and neon gas flowed into the narrow tube.

Later, Rob warned us to stand back as he jammed the throttle on the electricity and sent 220 power racing through the glass unit. Once he was assured that all was well, Rob invited us to look at it very, very closely. Squinting at the tube from two inches away, we convinced ourselves that we could actually see tiny movements inside – the electrical current exciting the neon electrons which danced as they gave off light.

The brilliance and buzz is writ large in the exhibition Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver where 22 neon signs fill the gallery with energy and light. Thanks to Gillette Rob for bringing eight of those signs back to life and light. To learn more, you can contact Rob at

Posted by: Joan Seidl on November 12, 2010 at 8:30 am

Last weeek, repatriation of a Maori cloak, or korowai, from the MOV collection was celebrated with great ceremony in Wairoa on the North Island of New Zealand.

The woven flax cloak once belonged to Sir James Carroll, Maori leader and politician who championed the cause of Maori land rights. Carroll traveled to Vancouver around 1916, and here he presented the cloak to the family of George Ham, who worked in public relations for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Ham’s descendant, Joan Myers, treasured the cloak and in 1986 presented it to MOV for safekeeping.

In 1990, Ms. Toi Te Rito Maihi, a highly skilled Maori textile artist, visited MOV to study the collection. There she saw the cloak and recognized immediately that it from the Wairoa area. The hanging threads on the cloak are dyed a distinctive dark brown achieved by Wairoa’s iron-rich mud. Ms. Maihi was even more excited to learn of the connection to Carroll, who despite his importance, left few tangible objects to mark his life in Wairoa.

In April 2010, MOV received a letter from the curator of the Wairoa Museum requesting repatriation of the cloak and enclosing letters from Ms. Maihi and Ms. Erina Kuai. Ms. Maihi explained, “Although twenty years have now elapsed since I saw the korowai, the knowledge of its presence so far from the original owner’s home remained with me. With increasing age I have felt a need to ask that the korowai be returned to its place of origin where it will be treasured for the memories of a great man.”

Ms Kuai wrote, “Our Tipuna (ancestor) Sir James Carroll was and continues to be held in high esteem in our town…The whole family, indeed the whole community of his home town would be proud to bring home his taonga (treasure), acknowledge and pay tribute to him in the tradition of his native Maori people.”

On November 6, the people of Wairoa did just that. A procession of Carroll’s descendants carried the cloak to the traditional meeting house. There it was welcomed by orators whose formal speeches reflected on the life of Carroll and the journey of the cloak. Each speech was followed by a song or haka.

Carwyn Jones, a Ph.D student at UVic law school and descendant of Carroll, helped MOV by carrying the cloak home to his people. Carwyn took these photographs and sent his reflections on the day: “There was a real sense that this was a wonderful occasion for the whole community. Just about everyone who spoke throughout the day talked about the return of this cloak as marking a coming-together and re-energising of the community and felt that it was symbolically important for the spirit of our people.”

MOV salutes Joan Myers for caring for the cloak carefully for so many years and for placing it in a museum where its existence could become public knowledge. We thank Carwyn Jones and his young family for welcoming us in Victoria and for ferrying the cloak safely back to Wairoa. We are grateful to Ms. Maihi and Ms Kuai for initiating this important work and helping us through their wonderful letters understand the importance of the cloak to their community.

At its best, repatriation works this way. It forges new relationships, fills in missing knowledge, and strengthens community identity. The artifact goes where it can do the most good.

Posted by: Joan Seidl on November 10, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Last month, the Sechelt Image returned to Sechelt and was repatriated to the ownership of the Sechelt Indian Band. This memorable day was a long time coming for both the Sechelt First Nation and for MOV staff.

On Friday October 15, Sechelt leaders journeyed to MOV to prepare the stone statue for its journey home. A standard regulation museum crate was lined with female cedar boughs, and the statue was placed inside, wrapped in a soft, hand-woven Salish blanket. Andy Johnson of the Sechelt Nation worked with Squamish spiritual leader Robert Nahanee to perform appropriate prayers and rituals before the journey.

MOV staff took the crate to Sechelt where the next day the Image was formally presented to the Sechelt Nation in a moving and powerful longhouse ceremony. Afterwards we enjoyed a great feast of salmon, halibut and elk at the community hall with the rest of the Sechelt community and guests. It was great to celebrate with the people of Sechelt – both the return of the statue and the new, positive relationships that grew out of the repatriation.

This is MOV’s first major repatriation to First Nations. The Museum purchased the statue in 1926 for $25 from Dan Paull, a member of the Sechelt First Nation, who expressed concern about its continuing care. The Sechelt first requested return of the statue in 1976. The Museum made the Sechelt a replica, explaining that they did not have a museum and therefore could not adequately care for the original. The Sechelt opened their own museum, tems swiya Museum, in 1994 (on the site of the former residential school), and continued to press for return of the original.

In February 2010, Sechelt curator Jessica Casey re-opened the repatriation request with MOV director of collections and exhibitions Joan Seidl. With the assistance of researcher Emily Birky, a UBC doctoral student in anthropology, documentation was prepared and a case for repatriation presented to the MOV Collections Committee which approved the motion in May. Because of the great value of the statue, the City of Vancouver, which owns the collection that MOV cares for, needed to approve the decision to repatriate, which happened in late September. It was one of the great days of my working life, when I got to pick up the phone and call Jessica Casey with this good news.

The stone carving depicts a mother clasping a child who faces her. During the weekend Sechelt elders re-christened the statue, Our Grieving Mother. This recognizes the ancient legend memorialized by the carving. A young boy was out playing when he encountered warriors from a distant tribe preparing to attack the Sechelt. They killed the boy, but that raised an alarm and the warriors fled without assaulting the other Sechelt. The boy’s mother was overcome with grief and took her own life.

At the ceremonies, the Sechelt expressed the hope that the presence of Our Grieving Mother in their community will help to bind together families and heal wounds between generations. All of us at MOV share this hope and wish every blessing and success to the Sechelt First Nation.

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