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Changing Approaches to the
Conservation of Northwest Coast Totem Poles

Charles S. Rhyne
Reed College

published in
Tradition and Innovation: Advances in Conservation
Contributions to the Melbourne Congress, 10-14 October 2000
London: International Institute for Conservation of Historic
and Artistic Works
, 2000. Pp.155-160, color plates 7.1-7.4.



This paper examines the widely varying approaches to the physical treatment of Northwest Coast Native American Indian totem poles during the past century-and-a-half, exploring what these indicate of evolving cultural attitudes both within and without the originating society. A few examples are discussed to demonstrate that Native American Indian and Euro-American approaches have both been evolving, often in response to each other, so that a wider range of alternative approaches is now available when dealing with individual situations. By opening up a range of approaches to one of the world's great monumental forms, this paper attempts to contribute to the rethinking of conservation theory and practice worldwide.


This paper is part of a larger study tracing the ways in which totem poles have been treated over the past century-and-a-half, the physical history of totem poles conceived as an interdisciplinary study. The central theme is the interplay between Northwest Coast Native American and Euro-American conservation practices. In this paper I present an historical overview, looking at a few examples that help us to explore this evolving interplay of concepts and practice [1].

Native Point of View

The inescapable starting point in discussing the conservation of Northwest Coast Native American Indian art is what is usually referred to as "the native point of view." The contrast between this point of view and the standard Euro-American approach is put most clearly by Gloria Cranmer Webster, Kwakwaka'wakw and a member of one the most respected families on the Northwest Coast, for over a decade curator of the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay, British Columbia, and a frequent consultant for major exhibitions of Northwest Coast art. At the Canadian Conservation Institute's 1986 symposium on "The Care and Preservation of Ethnographic Materials," she stated:

. . . we know what conservators do or try to do; that is, preserve objects for as long as possible. But, diametrically opposed to this is the general Indian view as I know it, which is that objects are created to be used and when those objects are damaged or worn out, they are thrown away and new ones are made. This applies to everything from small masks to large totem poles. For example, many Indian people feel that once a pole has served its purpose it should be allowed to go back into the ground. I think this attitude has a lot to do with the way Indian people look at the objects. The objects themselves are not important; what matters is what the objects represent. They represent the right to own that thing, and that right remains even if the object decays or is otherwise lost [2, p. 77].

In considering how the conservation--or not--of totem poles should be approached, this essential distinction between the objects themselves and what they represent must underlie every example we consider. But there are additional distinctions that make the situation more complicated, especially when considering totem poles. As one would expect and as ethnographic collections testify, objects of daily use were repaired when needed as were the functional necessities of masks and other ceremonial objects. Moreover, ceremonial objects were highly prized and stored for later ceremonies in woven cedarbark slipcovers and boxes. However, most totem poles, once erected, did not have any hands-on use and therefore did not require repair. Most importantly, the preservation and restoration of totem poles, even if it had been desired, was largely precluded by social custom, which dictated that once erected, a pole could not be repaired without an expensive ceremony for which the owner would obtain no new honors.

          Edward Keithahn, who beginning about 1926 taught school for fifteen years in Alaskan villages and then, for many years, was curator of the Alaska Historical Library and Museum in Juneau, describes the situation in detail: 'Once he had acquitted himself of all obligations attendant to the raising of a memorial, the chief was not required or even expected to repair the pole. If he did desire to repaint, move, reset or otherwise alter a memorial once erected he could not do so except through the medium of a potlatch and at the same expense as though he were erecting a new pole. All the work would have to be done by the members of the opposite phratry who would be paid for their work. Guests would attend the alteration ceremony out of courtesy and would receive presents from the host. It is manifestly clear that even in earlier times there was little, if any, incentive for the preservation of totem poles since anything done was done at great expense and added nothing to the prestige of the owner. To do something to restore the totem pole of a predecessor would likewise in no way enhance the reputation of the individual interested in preserving the monument' [3, pp. 118-119].

          The traditional Indian approach to the preservation of totem poles is thus not simply a matter of a point of view but is deeply embedded in social practice. Accordingly, in the larger study I have undertaken and in this paper, I have attempted to ground each example in actual practice.

          There were several different types of totem poles, some attached to houses, a few even structural. One freestanding exterior type, mortuary poles, held the remains of chiefs and other notables, buried in boxes or holes at the top. For these, the trees were inverted, with the larger section at the top. If we include carved interior house posts, we must note that they decayed much less rapidly than exterior poles. Generalizations also fail to account for significant differences among Northwest Coast tribal groups, with not only many different languages, but even several different linguistic families. Moreover, the Haida were carving totem poles before European contact, whereas the earliest of the important poles at the Kwakwaka'wakw village of Alert Bay, British Columbia, were carved in the 1890s. Differences among villages and kinship groups also affect conservation choices. It is instructive, therefore, to look at individual examples, and to note especially differences in approach and practice.

Decimation: 1879-1925

The story of the decimation of Northwest Coast culture, initially through smallpox and other diseases that reduced native populations to a small fraction of their former size, then through religious and government suppression of native language and social practice, has been told in various publications [5]. Often overlooked in this story is the ability of Northwest peoples to adapt to such a devastating attack on their culture, learning the ways of a foreign culture while in various ways continuing and adapting their traditional practices. In spite of what seems to have been the traditional Northwest Coast practice, a variety of cases have been documented in which individual owners and Native communities altered totem poles in various ways, sometimes in order to preserve them. By 1875, the missionary in Fort Simpson, British Columbia, "had persuaded many to remove poles from outside their houses, and, though some of these had been burned, others were collected 'in a sort of museum'" [6, pp. 22-23]. It may be that the act of moving a pole within one's own village or to a new village did not always require an accompanying ceremony; at least a few cases of this type have been recorded without a ceremony being mentioned [7]. Steven Brown, Curator for Native American Art at the Seattle Art Museum and a distinguished restorer and carver of poles, who lived and worked in Alaska for many year, writes that "in the Wrangell area--Wrangell, southeast Alaska--there was a long history which can be documented photo graphically, going back over 100 years, of the replacement of certain significant large monument--totem poles, if you will--that had deteriorated or for some other reason been damaged over time and were replaced within the traditional cultural context" [8].

Collecting by European and American Museums: 1875-1930

The story of the ambitious campaigns undertaken by museums in Europe, Canada, and especially the United States for collecting Northwest Coast artifacts has been most comprehensively told by Douglas Cole (until his recent death Professor of History at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia) in his book Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts [9]. This first great period of collecting Northwest Coast material flourished from 1875 until the great depression of the early 1930s. While the intensity of this collecting was undoubtedly driven by competition among the newly founded national museums of anthropology, there was also a genuine sense of urgency based on the recognition that "primitive" cultures everywhere were fast disappearing and with them the possibility of collecting their artifacts while used by living cultures. As seen by the scientific community, the act of collecting was primarily an act of preservation. Totem poles were prized centerpieces of any such collection.

          Serious museum collecting began in the 1870s and was given sudden momentum when in 1875 the United States government undertook an exhibition of Indian life as part of its Centennial Exposition, to be held the next year in Philadelphia, celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of United States independence. Two thirty foot totem poles from that exhibition deserve special attention as unique documents, showing what the carved and painted surface of high quality poles looked like at the time. In the conservation of paintings, those few works that retains their original surface, without the intrusion of overcleaning and later restoration, are highly prized and studied carefully by anyone undertaking professional treatment of similar works by the same artist. For anyone charged with the care of high quality nineteenth century totem poles, these two exemplars deserve the same careful study.

          Following the 1876 Centennial, these two poles became the property of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and are now part of the collections of the National Museum of Natural History. For some years they have been displayed back-to-back, with a third taller pole, from Tanu, in the north lobby stairwell of the museum, providing excellent conditions for close study. One, a Tsimshian pole was purchased at Fort Simpson, British Columbia, and seems from its condition to have been carved soon before its purchase (cat. no. 23,550) [10]. The other pole was specially commissioned for the exposition from a Haida carver at Kasaan, on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska (cat. no. 54,298) (Colour Plates 1 and 2). Cole notes that James Swan, the Northwest Coast agent in charge of purchasing works for the exposition, thought especially highly of the Haida pole, for which he had initiated the arrangements in Kasaan. "For shipping to Philadelphia, Swan cut the Tsimshian pole in two [the standard practice when shipping tall poles east] . . . but he insisted on sending the new Kasaan pole whole" [11, p. 30]. Although the Kasaan pole may seem a bit domestic in comparison with the great Tanu pole, it is an impressive pole and, as far as I can tell, the only large, freestanding nineteenth century pole never erected or stored out of doors, as the lack of any serious cracking indicates. Even its top is superbly preserved. This pole provides the best evidence for what the surface and color of a first rate totem pole from the nineteenth century looked like and rewards careful study. Smithsonian conservation records show that both poles were cleaned with minor repairs in 1969 [12].

          Although there are only occasional references in notes and letters, it seems likely that many poles would have been cleaned, repaired, sometimes repainted before being sold and shipped to museums. Indeed, given the standard practice at that time even for Renaissance paintings, it would be surprising if they had not been restored for sale. About the Tsimshian pole, based on Swan's letters to the Smithsonian, Cole records that "They arranged for some Tsimshian to clean and repaint it though the back was left with 'some of the moss, which indicates its age'" [1 3, p. 29].

          Given the conditions under which totem poles were stolen and purchased from Northwest Coast villages, First Nations have serious ambivalence about the possesion of so many of these poles by Euro-American museums. An increasing number of First Nations cultural center have been constructed, with museum facilities, and a number of poles that were removed from villages without authorization have been repatriated to the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay'llnagaay (Sea Lion Town) near Skidegate, the largest city on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) and elsewhere. Others have noted the importance of museum collections in preserving their art form for the future. The distinguished Haida artist, Robert Davidson, a leading spokesperson for Native American Indian culture, has written: "There was, and to an extent still is, a viewpoint shared by many artists and other people on the coast that the collection of Indian art and artifacts was wrong - another example of exploitation. My feeling about that is the opposite; if it wasn't for the museums and if it wasn't for the anthropologists, I feel the art form would have died completely if nothing had been collected and saved" [14, p. 3].

Salvage: 1925-1970

The salvage of totem poles actually started well before 1925, most notably when the poles gathered for display at the 1904 Lousiana Purchase World Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, were then moved to Sitka and erected as the Sitka Totem Park (now Sitka National Historical Park). Of course the salvage process continues even today. A few salvage operations attempted to re-erect poles near their original sites, but most moved poles to outdoor sculpture parks, where they were either grouped or distributed in parks throughout a city. Apart from their desire to collect, a few museums were also active in salvaging poles. Where the poles still existed in native communities, the standard practice was to carve replicas to replace the originals, otherwise usually not. Along with a genuine interest in preserving the impressive evidence of Native American culture, these operations were inspired and funded by commercial interests anxious to attract tourist. The number of salvage operations was large and many of them have been well published, pointing out the poor quality of replicas in the early years and the indiscriminate repainting of totem poles by highway work crews. The great glory of this story, often told, was the creation of totem pole carving projects first at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, then at the British Columbia Provincial Museum (now Royal British Columbia Museum), Victoria. These two institutions hired Mungo Martin, Southern Kwakwaka'wakw from Fort Rupert, who had learned carving from his stepfather, Charlie James. Initially he was asked to restore poles but soon, at his request, to devote his energies to carving replicas, new poles, and to training apprentices [15]. When the British Columbia Provincial Museum purchased deteriorating poles from owners, two copies were sometimes made, always one to replace the original, but occasionally also one to be installed in Thunderbird Park, Victoria, near the Parliament Building and museum. Martin's astonishing production of high quality replicas and original poles and central role in training many of the most important carvers of the next generation has long been recognized as the single most essential link in the revival of totem pole carving. Martin is reported to have said "If we Kwakiutl keep the art only for ourselves it will die. If we share it with the White Men it will live forever" [16, p. 171]. In the carving of replica poles by contemporary First Nations carvers, including second generation poles by descendants of the original owners, it is revealing that the aim has been less to create an exact replica of the original than to carve a new pole, faithful to the original, but not a duplicate. The aim seems to be to carve the pole the right way, as the original had been carved, responding to the width of the tree, following the grain of the wood, and adjusting to any irregularities. Meanwhile, the restoration of poles quite naturally continued to be controversial in many native villages. In 1950 Barbeau notes that "Henry Dudoward of Port Simpson, who paints the totem poles for the municipality in Prince Rupert, was ostracized by his own people, who consider his work in defilement of totem poles" [17, Vol. 2, p. 859]; and Ward reports that "In 1929 the Indian Agent for the Skeena District reported that the Kitsegukla Band had threatened one of their number who wanted to have his poles restored" [18, p. 21].

          A possibly unique salvage operation was undertaken at Kitwanga on the Upper Skeena River at the time of the disastrous 1936 flood, notable because it was, as far as we know, the first extensive preservation effort conducted entirely by Northwest Coast native peoples. Philip Ward, for many years Chief Conservator at the British Columbia Provincial Museum and a participant in the 1969-70 restoration project on the Upper Skeena River, has written the definitive report on the Kitwanga restorations. He writes that "Apparently without any outside help, they removed all the endangered poles from the river bank, repaired those that were damaged, and re-erected them. . . ." Ward points out that many of the villagers who carried out this operation were no doubt ones who had been present during a previous 1925-26 government restoration effort using methods devised by an experienced timber bridge engineer, T.B. Campbell, and that on-site examination of the poles indicates that the Kitwanka people seem to have followed Campbell's procedure as far as possible. Nevertheless, the initiative this time was entirely that of the Kitwanga people themselves, the event going almost completely unnoticed by outsiders [19, p. 24]. In fact we cannot be sure exactly when the poles were re-erected. George MacDonald has suggested that the poles may not have been repaired and re-erected until January 1942 when a major potlatch was held at Kitwanga for the raising of three new poles. This would have allowed the old and new poles to be erected at the same time with a single potlatch [20].

          In the new installation, the poles were moved to higher ground and, as later with poles at Kitwancool, turned to face the road instead of the river. This preserved the practice of presenting the poles to those arriving at the village, the road having replaced the river as the main highway [21, pp. 26-27].


No single site reveals the gradually evolving change in conservation practice more instructively than Ninstints, on Sgan'gwaii (Anthony Island) near the southern tip of Haida Gwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands), which, together with Anthony Island, has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The poles at Ninstints have been studied and published in more detail and with higher archaeological and scientific standards than any other poles, so that only a brief up-to-date summary is presented here. Since all treatment of the poles at Ninstints requires separate approval by Parks Canada and the Council of Haida Nations, the progression of steps taken at Ninstints reflects decisions regarding shared values. The treatments themselves have been conducted jointly by skilled Haida tree experts and workmen and by non-native archaeologist, conservators and workmen.

          It is instructive to note the steps initiated over twenty years after the salvaging of over a dozen poles in 1957:

In 1978 all vegetation, including trees and bushes, growing out of the poles cut back without disturbing their roots and some fallen poles and memorials were raised slightly on supports (Fig. 1).

 In 1981 and 1982 extensive technical study of the poles and environmental factors were conducted on site; slight excavations were conducted around the bases of the poles, which were then filled with beach gravel to reduce rot; and the advancing forest of Sitka spruce, which was rapidly encroaching on the site was cut back [22].

About 1993 one pole was supported with a slender metal staff, and in 1994 several poles were propped with slender, crossing wooden supports (Fig. 2). Fallen details have occasionally been reattached.

In 1995 archaeological excavations were conducted around the bases of four poles that were threatening to topple, the poles partially straightened, and the excavations filled with large stones hauled up from the beach [23].

Museum Quality Conservation of New Poles

In the past, totem pole conservation focused on nineteenth and early twentieth century poles, all in various states of decay. With the gradual emergence of new carvers, especially an increasing number who have mastered the art of carving and exhibit both deep understanding of the totem pole tradition and high originality, conservators are given the opportunity of treating important new poles in mint condition. Whether displayed indoors or outdoors, usually in the museums, government structures and private collections that have commissioned them, these poles are increasingly treated like any other work of contemporary art (where the problems of transient materials often far exceed anything faced with totem poles).

          Contemporary poles installed outdoors provide more challenging situations and are more instructive since they decay much more rapidly than poles indoors. In most cases, new poles erected outdoors have been allowed to decay initially, with minimal cleaning and repair. In a few cases, however, exterior poles have been carefully cleaned and cared for from the time they were erected, thus providing a valuable opportunity to study their deterioration and to compare alternative treatments.

          The ideals of modern conservation closely parallel those for modern medicine, with careful monitoring and preventive conservation preeminent. To date, the premier case study for meticulous care of exterior contemporary totem poles is Robert Davidson's magnificent group of three poles, Three Variations on Killer Whale Myths, erected in 1986 at the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens, at the PepsiCo World Headquarters, in Purchase, New York (Fig. 3) [24]. There they are displayed in the company of over thirty other twentieth century sculptures, including works by artists such as Moore, Giacometti, Nevelson, and Oldenburg. From the time they were installed their treatment has been carried out by Douglass Kwart under the supervision of Douglas Caulk, who has kindly shared with me their conservation program and details of their treatment [25].

          Their approach has been to keep the poles looking as good as possible and to retard deterioration, while allowing the public free access. In keeping with advanced conservation practice, the artist has supplied wood from the trees from which the poles were carved to provide for repairs and has supplied paint and paint chips for repainting. Many contemporary First Nations carvers are happy to have their poles repainted. Davidson has said, "You have to repaint a pole periodically, like any house or any outdoor object" [26, p. 57]. To date the repair wood has been used only to plug carpenter ant holes. The paint has been used more extensively. Partly because the brilliant red paint, which Davidson especially likes, fades rather quickly and partly because the lower portions are exposed to the public, the poles are repainted every four years. In a close parallel to aspects of conservation practice in leading museums, only one pole is painted each year (no pole is painted the fourth), so that the poles never look startlingly new, yet differences among the poles are slight.

          As with all sculpture in this superbly handled collection, the poles are given regular, detailed inspection, using an aerial lift. Each July they are brushed with a soft brush to remove organic matter where seeds might take root and insect egg cases are removed (carpenter ants are a constant problem). The poles have occasionally been sprayed with a natural oil distillation, with excellent results in controlling the growth of mold and keeping insects away, thus also the woodpeckers that feed on them. Although this product does gradually leech out with the rains, Caulk and Kwart are now considering cedar wood oil, which is closer to the trees' original oils, and, following the same natural process, will gradually leech out with water.

          This approach accepts the gradual graying of the unpainted areas, though after more than ten years the shielded areas of the poles retain much of their rich cedar color and painted areas still retain their fine surfaces (Colour Plates 3 and 4). The display and conservation treatment for Three Variations on Killer Whale Themes equals that for the finest sculpture in leading museums internationally.

Ceremonies Associated with Conservation Treatment

The raising of a new First Nations totem pole is accompanied by a ceremony with feasting, dancing, and the declaration of rights and privileges. At Kitwancool, on the Upper Skeena River, a ceremony was developed in the twentieth century to accompany the burning of poles that had fallen. It is appropriate that some form of ceremony should also accompany the conservation or restoration of a pole. The following account is an unusually moving first-person description of such a ceremony.

          For some years, Andrew Todd, Andrew Todd Conservators, Vancouver, British Columbia, has supervised and treated the major collection of poles at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska. In a recently completed article, he describes a small ceremony conducted previous to his treatment of an important pole in the collection, the Tongass Island Raven. As Todd describes it, rights and responsibility for the traditional ownership of the Tongass Island Raven are held by Esther Shea, an elder of both her family and the Tongass Tribe. Thus final approval of the proposed treatment rested with her. Andrew Todd has given me permission to quote the central section of his article.

          Esther came to the Totem Heritage Center with members of her family and in the presence of them and the staff of the Ketchikan Museum Department and myself, a small but meaningful ceremony took place. In the hushed totem storage room, beside the Raven . . Esther indicated she would sing a song. Alone in her native Tlingit language, she sang a blessing for the treatment and an explanation of the purpose of intervention to the Raven. . . . The meaning of the song in the Tlingit language was explained by Esther after she had finished. She said that she had asked the Raven to understand that the treatment was meant to help the people who were alive now to be more closely linked with their ancestors from the past. She asked the Raven to understand that no harm was meant and that the effort to preserve the wood and to keep the materials stabilized was so the Raven could continue to remind the native people of their culture, their symbols and the past. It was a beautiful ceremony that lasted only moments and yet was a very special experience. For myself as the conservator responsible for the treatment, the experience was a reminder that spirits and ancestors from the past were associated with the Raven and were understood to be involved with my work. It also removed the burden of taking sole responsibility for the treatment of an object from another culture, and by giving the treatment approval through the blessing of a song, more history had been added to the long record of the Raven. The song in fact became another form of claiming authority and demonstrating the cultural ownership of the Raven. The oral history of legends and objects told by songs are a very important tradition in Native American culture' [27].

          This exchange between the native descendant of the original owners of a pole and non-native museum personnel is characteristic of the vast majority of interchanges that have taken place in recent years. In the process, Native Americans have gained access to and a degree of control over their objects in Euro-American collections and have learned of the advantages of long term preservation of their cultural heritage. Conservators, Curators, and Administrators in museums have learned essential information about the history of the objects in their stewardship and have come to understand the traditional procedures for their care and how these might continue to enhance the cultural value of these artifacts.

Re-creating a Northwest Coast Village

It has long been recognized that the most impressive feature of North west Coast Indian totem poles was not their individual quality, remarkable as that often was, but rather their cumulative power as part of a complete village panorama seen as one approached from the water, densely spread in front of the longhouses facing the water, a seeming forest of awesome creatures, with ravens, eagles, and watchmen projecting into the sky. This is what we should most like to preserve, but the largest group of poles standing in-situ is at Ninstints, magestic in their own way but now only a remnant of their former grandeur. At the Gitksan villages of Kispiox, Kitwanga, and Kitwancool on the Upper Skeena River, groupings of more recent poles remain close to their original sites, but without their original houses or river settings. Fortunately, panoramas of Skidegate, Masset, Yan and other Haida villages are recorded in photographs taken by a number of photographers from 1878 to 1884, but even these show the villages past their prime and of course record no color.

          As a result, a few attempts have been made to approximate a Northwest Coast village with its houses, totem poles and other memorials. For the Chicago Exposition of 1893, Skidegate carvers were commissioned to create models of their own houses and poles, which were displayed in a row approximating the village, against a painted forest background. Two much smaller models have been created for museum display, the first representing Skedans on display at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, the other a model of Skidegate at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull. In the 1930s, a project was begun at Totem Bight State Park, north of Ketchikan, Alaska, to recreate a traditional Tlingit village, with houses and totem poles, some replicated from poles from deserted villages, others carved anew. Only a single Tlingit plankhouse was completed, but the large grouping of Tlingit and Haida poles makes this the outdoor location where one can get the fullest sense of a traditional Northwest Coast village pole display. A small but first class grouping of houses and poles was constructed at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, 1959-1962. In the 1960s, a more extensive project was begun at the village of 'Ksan, at a traditional site on the Upper Skeena River, near Hazelton. Here, seven Gitksan houses were successfully recreated, with traditional painted fronts and a number of newly carved poles in front (Fig. 4). For years the 'Ksan Historical Indian Village thrived as a center for Northwest Indian culture, not only with a museum and exhibition space, but also a feast house, gift shop, and important school for teaching native arts. A performing arts group was also organized which performed at 'Ksan and elsewhere. If one is to recreate an original village context for totem poles, it is essential that it be a living village, not identical of course to a nineteenth century village, but with as many of the ingredients as possible and equally vital in its time. It is noteworthy, also, that the creation of new poles was seen as closely related to the preservation of older poles in other villages, and that First Nations peoples and non-native members of the Skeena Totem Pole Restoration Society worked together on both projects. Naturally there were many disagreements and problems, but each learned from and adapted to the other. Likewise, the creation of a composite Northwest Coast village at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, begun in 1984, involved the interplay of native and non-native people at all levels, and again a great deal of interchange and learning took place. With six newly constructed houses, each representing a different region of the coast, and a spectacular array of restored totem poles, this hall allows us to see the largest number of original full size totem poles on display in something like an original setting; but of course the display is inside and not a living village on the Northwest Coast. A museum provides a different context with an entirely different cultural meaning.

          This year, after long planning, the most promising project yet has been initiated, the Qay'll Heritage Center at Qay'llnagaay (Sea Lion Town) just southwest of Skidegate on the Second Beach peninsula. This is a projected sixteen million dollar project to construct a series of longhouses (probably linked for convenient use) fronted by poles, facing the Skidegate Inlet. As at 'Ksan, plans call for an active center integrating many aspect of contemporary native culture; including a Haida Language Centre, Bill Reid Teaching Center, Performing Arts Theatre, and Information Centre. Plans are to double the size of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay'llnagaay, partly to accommodate newly repatriated objects with proper housing and display. The first six totem poles, to represent six of the southern Haida villages, have just been commissioned from six leading Haida carvers. Carving is to begin about March 2000 and to be completed by March 2001. Following traditional practice that in recent years h as been so successful in revitalizing the art of pole carving at a high level, each head carver will supervise two apprentices [28]. By eventually recreating something approximating the full, living context for a large array of high quality totem poles, the Qay'll Heritage Center will be accomplishing what is no longer possible through conservation alone.

Conservation Training for First Nations People

Parallel to the expanding number of First Nations people who have trained as lawyers, doctors, and for other professions, a number of young Native Americans have trained as archaeologists, conservators and as historic preservation specialists, thus uniting in themselves the two approaches supposedly at odds with each other. Of equal importance, courses in totem pole conservation for local caretakers are now recognized as essential. One week courses, which may serve as models for other programs, were held April 1998 and August 1999 in Wrangell, Alaska by the U.S. National Park Service in conjunction with the Wrangell Museum. The courses emphasizing hands-on workshops were conducted by experts such as Ronald Sheetz, Alan Levitan, Steven Brown, and Andrew Todd [29].


The rich interplay between the conservation approaches of Euro-Americans and Northwest Coast peoples cannot be fully conveyed with the few examples presented in this paper. Surely we must also look at exhibition practices; examples of complex pole restorations within leading museums; the dramatic advances in technical studies for wood conservation and the need for a full dendrochronological study comparable to those now available for European wooden artifacts; repatriation; the growth of First Nations museums and the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which has inherited the poles from the George Gustav Heye Collection in New York; contemporary situations where poles are still deliberately allowed to decay or burned after they have fallen; the status of original poles in museums when they have been replaced by replicas on their original sites; the need for a database of Northwest Coast totem poles and for monitoring of exterior pole deterioration; and the relation between traditional concepts of cultural heritage and what is now referred to as "intangible heritage," just announced as the subject of the next General Assembly of ICOMOS. In part to provide for this, I have prepared a comprehensive annotated bibliography for the conservation of Northwest Coast Native American Indian totem poles, available at my home page on the World Wide Web [30].

          Nevertheless, I hope that these few examples indicate that there has been no single First Nations point of view just as there has been no single Euro-American point of view. There have been disagreements about conservation approaches within individual museums in Europe and America and within their conservation departments, and there have been disagreements within individual Northwest Coast Indian villages and within band councils. Far from posing a problem, this has been a productive situation, leading to discuss and increased understanding. More importantly, what have conventionally been identified as the Euro-American point of view and the Native American Indian point of view, so clearly put by Gloria Cranmer Webster at the beginning of this paper, have been inter acting for many years, increasingly enlarging the range of alternatives practiced by each group. The process has been at times tense, sometimes even combative, but in the vast majority of cases those involved have reported the discovery of shared values and immensely rewarding results.

          It seems to me that we are at a particularly fruitful stage in considering the conservation of our cultural heritage. We are finally coming to re cognize and respect the diversity of cultures and the different values these cultures place on physical objects as a result of their traditional materials, social practices, and the history of their people. And we can now see ourselves not as committed to a fixed set of rules but as part of an ongoing process, where no decisions are automatic but must be considered in the light of a variety of justifiable alternatives. This reconsideration can enhance our own understanding of what we and others value most in our past and inspire us to treat the cultural heritage of all places with greater respect and responsibility.


The larger study on which this paper is based has benefited from generous help from many conservators too numerous to mention here, including especially James Hay at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull. For various type of assistance with this article, I thank especially Robert Barclay, the late Richard Beauchamp, Douglas Caulk, Miriam Clavir, Robert Davidson, David Gratten, Alan Leviton, Natalie Macfarlen, Andrew Todd, and Philip Ward.


1. The authoritative, comprehensive source for Northwest Coast Native American Indian studies is Handbook of North American Indians: Northwest Coast, ed. W. Suttles, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (1990), a 777 page volume authored by 59 authorities, including a 93 page bibliography. Although "conservation," "restoration," and "preservation" are not indexed or treated separately, the volume provides rich, documented material for many aspects of such a study.

2. Cranmer-Webster, Gloria, "Conservation and Cultural Centres: U'Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, Canada," in Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnographic Materials, ed. R. Barclay, M. Gilberg, J.C. McCawley and T. Stone, CCI, Ottawa (1986) 77-79.

3. Keithahn, Edward L., Monuments in Cedar, Roy Anderson, Ketchikan, Alaska (1945), reworded in the enlarged 1963 ed., 113.

4. Keithahn, Edward L., Monuments in Cedar, Roy Anderson, Ketchikan, Alaska (1945).

5. Reliable accounts appear in Handbook of North American Indians: Northwest Coast, ed. W. Suttles, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., (1990), 135-179.

6. Cole, Douglas, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. (1985).

7. For examples see Laforet, Andrea, The Book of the Grand Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull (1992) 40, 72; MacDonald, George F., 17 Haida Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands, UBC Press, Vancouver (1993) 66; and Brown, Steven, Totem Poles: Tlingit, Bellerophon Books, Santa Barbara, California (1994), 20 unnumbered.

8. Brown, Steven, in "Multicultural Participation in Conservation Decision-Making" in WAAC Newsletter, 14 (Jan. 1992), 13-22. Available on the World Wide Web at < wn14-1/wn14-105.html>.

9. Cole, Douglas, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. (1985).

10. Barbeau, Marius, Totem Poles, National Museum of Canada, Ottawa, 2 vols. (1950; republished 1990, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull); Barbeau describes it as "presumably executed on request . . . a reproduction of the totem . . . in front of a Tsimsyan house at Port Simpson, ca. 1860 and 1870" (vol. 1, p. 432).

11. Cole, Douglas, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. (1985).

12. Anthropology Conservation Laboratory, Museum Support Center, Smithsonian Institution, Suitland, Maryland.

13. Cole, Douglas, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. (1985).

14. Quoted in Dorais, LČo A., "Opening Address," in Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnographic Materials, ed. R. Barclay, M. Gilberg, J.C. McCawley and T. Stone, CCI, Ottawa (1986) 3-5.

15. Nuytten, Phil, The Totem Carvers: Charlie James, Ellen Neel, and Mungo Martin, Panorama Pub., Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia (1982), 52-53, 77-109; Hawthorne, Audrey, A Labour of Love: The Making of the Museum of Anthropology, UBC: The First Three Decades, 1947-1976, Museum Note No. 33, UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, B.C. (1993), 9-19.

16. Quoted in Malin, Edward, Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1986.

17. Barbeau, Marius, Totem Poles, National Museum of Canada, Ottawa, 2 vols. (1950; republished 1990, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull).

18. Ward, Philip, "The Poles of Kitwanga," unpublished manuscript of ca. 110 pages in the author's possession (ca. 1988).

19. Ward, Philip, "The Poles of Kitwanga," unpublished manuscript (ca. 1988) of ca. 110 pages in the author's possession. The author has kindly allowed me to use this outstanding account of the preservation history of one of the two largest (with Alert Bay) group of poles still in their original communities. The manuscript includes a history of the three restoration campaigns, detailed account of the technical methods used in each case, and catalogue of the poles, with clear diagrams of the site. Much of the information, based on first-hand experience, is not available elsewhere and deserves full publication.

20. MacDonald, George, The Totem Poles and Monuments of Kitwangak Village, National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Ottawa (1984).

21. Ward, Philip, "The Poles of Kitwanga," unpublished manuscript of ca. 110 pages in the author's possession (ca. 1988).

22. Florian, Mary-Lou E., Beauchamp, Richard, and Kennedy, Barbara, " Haida Totem Pole Conservation Program, Ninstints Village, Anthony Island, British Columbia," in Conservation of Wooden Monuments: Proceedings of the ICOMOS Wood Committee, IV International Symposium, Canada, June 1982, ICOMOS Canada and the Heritage Canada Foundation, Ottawa (1983).

23. Koppel, Tom, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii," Canadian Geographic (March-April 1996) Vol. 116, 22-33.

24. Steltzer, Ulli, and Davidson, Robert, Eagle Transforming: The Art of Robert Davidson, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, and University of Washington Press, Seattle (1994), 83-95; Rhyne, Charles S., Expanding the Circle: The Art of guud san glans, Robert Davidson, Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, Portland, Oregon (1998), 5-9, 19, 48-51.

25. Conversations July 1996 and Feb. 2000 with Douglas Caulk, Caulk Art Associates, 80 Red Schoolhouse Rd., Suite 219, Chestnut Ridge, NY, 10977.

26. Steltzer, Ulli, and Davidson, Robert, Eagle Transforming: The Art of Robert Davidson, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. and University of Washington Press, Seattle (1994)

27. Todd, Andrew, "A Treatment Song for the Tongass Island Raven," ms. article to be published in Preview, Vancouver, B.C; see also Todd, Andrew, "Painted Memory, Painted Totems," in Painted Wood: History and Conservation: Proceedings of a symposium organized by the Wooden Artifacts Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the Foundation of the AIC, held at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 11-14 November 1994, ed. Valerie Dorge and F. Carey Howlett, Getty Conservation Institute, L .A. (1998), 400-411.

28. Conversations July 1998 and Feb. 2000 with Natalie Macfarlane, Director, Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay'llnagaay, Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C.

29. Levitan, Alan, "Carved Pole Preservation Workshop, Wrangell, AK, August 9-13, 1999: Final Report," photocopy brochure, Harpers Ferry Center, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Charles town, West Virginia (1999); Levitan, Alan, "Totem Preservation in Southeast Alaska," CRM (Cultural Resource Management, Vol. 22 (1999), 27-29. 30. <>.


Charles Rhyne is Professor Emeritus, Art History, at Reed College. The past decade he has given various papers on the history, theory and practice of conservation: on "Changes in the Appearance of Paintings by John Constable" at a 1990 conferences of the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation; on "The System of Conservation Training in the U.S. A." at a 1992 symposium of the Association of Restorers, Prague, The Czech Republik; on "The First International Document for Cultural Diversity in Conservation: The Document of Nara" at the 1995 annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation; on "Cultural Diversity and Conservation" at a 1995 symposium at the J. Paul Getty Museum; and 20 on "Digital Images and the Technical Study of Art" at the 1999 annual meeting of the College Art Association. Address: Department of Art, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., Portland, OR, 97202-8199, USA.


Color Plate 1

Haida, Kasaan, 30 foot totem pole, 1875-76, detail showing that even the top retains its original surface, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution, cat. no. 54,298. Photo: Author 1995.

Color Plate 2

Haida, Kasaan, 30 foot totem pole, 1875-76, detail near top showing the near-original surface and color, uniquely preserved for a 19th c. pole, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution, cat. no. 54,298. Photo: Author 1995.

Color Plate 3

Robert Davidson, Three Variations on Killer Whale Myths, 1986, detail of pole farthest left (see fig. 3) showing well preserved wood and repainted surfaces after twelve years exposure out-of-doors, Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Garden, Purchase, NY. Photo: Author 1998.

Color Plate 4

Robert Davidson, Three Variations on Killer Whale Myths, 1986, detail of pole farthest right (see fig. 3) showing results of meticulous preventive conservation and repainting, Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Garden, Purchase, NY. Photo: Author 1998.

Fig. 1

Village of Ninstints, on Skan'gwaii (Anthony Island), Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), British Columbia, ca. first half nineteenth century, showing memorial raised on cross beams probably 1978. Photo: Author 1994.

Fig. 2

Village of Ninstints, on Skan'gwaii (Anthony Island), Haida Gwaii (Queen

Charlotte Islands), British Columbia, ca. first half nineteenth century, showing temporary propping of poles 1993-1994, jointly supervised by Parks Canada and the Council of Haida Nations. Photo: Author 1994.

Fig. 3

Robert Davidson, Three Variations on Killer Whale Myths, 1986 (see color plates 3 and 4), Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Garden, PepsiCo World Headquarters, Purchase, New York State. Photo: Author 1998.

Fig. 4

'Ksan Historical Indian Village, near Hazelton, British Columbia, re-created Gitksan houses and poles, 1968-1970, housing a center for Northwest Indian culture. Photo: Author 1994.

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