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Recent Approaches to the Conservation of Northwest Coast Totem Poles

Charles S. Rhyne
Reed College

a paper given at the Thirtieth International Congress
of the History of Art, London, 3-8 September, 2000

published in Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung
17 Jahrgang 2003, Heft 1, pp.179-184



Although this paper deals specifically with Northwest Coast totem poles, I hope to show that a serious look at the recent history of these remarkable monuments can help us to rethink the conservation of art worldwide. All of the issues involved in the conservation of totem poles exist for every work of art. Let us take totem poles as a case study, to see what they can teach us about our changing approaches to culture worldwide; the recent physical history of totem poles as an interdisciplinary study.1

       I am convinced that an intimate, in-depth understanding of specific case studies, such as this, is our best hope for comprehending one of the great cultural transformations of our time: the revitalization of traditional cultures at the same time that there is increased interplay among cultures and the threat of an increasingly uniform society. Hopefully, we are coming to recognize that this increasingly worldwide society must include respect, indeed active support for cultural diversity.

Why Totem Poles?

Why are totem poles especially instructive for such a study? First, because they are recognized as one of the great monumental forms in the history of art, comparable in stature and in the intensity of meaning to Egyptian cenotaphs, Roman triumphal columns, and Mayan stele. As a major art form, with parallels in other cultures, other periods, they provide broad historical relevance. Secondly, totem poles were major carriers of memory. In a verbal, non-literate society, memory was passed down primarily through the retelling and reenacting of stories, but these stories were recalled on a daily basis by the pervasive imagery woven, carved and painted on physical objects, of which totem poles were one of the preeminent forms. Third, the material of totem poles, even the hardy red cedar of the Northwest Coast, is itself much more transitory than the stone monuments with which they are sometimes compared, especially in the extraordinarily moist conditions of the North Pacific Coast.2

       This art form originated in the narrow strip of land, islands, and a few inland rivers, along the north Pacific coast of the North American continent, the area between the Pacific Ocean and the formidable coastal mountain barrier. In addition to rapid physical changes, these poles have been subject to unusually changeable cultural conditions, most violently during the past two centuries of reasonably well-recorded history; during which they were carved and raised in increasing numbers and size, supported by the sudden wealth of the fur trade, then abandoned as native populations were decimated by small pox and other foreign diseases, then cut down and destroyed at the urging of colonial missionaries, then urgently salvaged and collected by Euro-American museums, then the focus of major recarving and conservation programs. Finally, totem poles are participating in the impressive revitalization of Northwest culture, and are again being carved in significant numbers by a growing body of talented, well-trained native carvers. Today, they are increasingly commissioned and installed by non-native businesses and governments around the world. They provide rich evidence for understanding the complex interplay of the values and approaches to the conservation of all historical and artistic works.

Traditional Contrast

Given the number of totem poles of different types, carved for different purposes over more than two centuries by carvers from different tribal groups, some with distinctive traits, and given the complexity of their physical histories, it is impossible in a short presentation to deal with more than a small sampling of examples. Let us focus on a few recent examples and on one issue only, the interplay of the traditional American Indian approaches with traditional Euro-American approaches to conservation.

       The contrast between what is often referred to as "the traditional native point of view" and what is frequently thought to be the standard Euro-American approach has been put most clearly by Gloria Cranmer Webster, Kwakwaka'wakw, a member of one the most respected families on the Northwest Coast, one of the founders of the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay, 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.3

       There are indeed many examples to support this traditional contrast of approaches. An important Nuu-chah-nulth pole, the so-called "Lord Willingdon's Pole", was raised at Yu-quot in 1877 to mark an important marriage merging two bands on Vancouver Island, but has been allowed to deteriorate. As documented by Heather Richardson,4 one of the two families wished to have the pole preserved. This family regularly sought the assistance of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, whose conservators then examined the pole over a period of two decades and provided simple, practical proposals for preserving the pole in situ. However, their proposals were each time blocked by the band. Seven years ago the pole finally fell and is now probably beyond repair. The band (part owner of the pole because of a mistake by Lord Willingdon) felt that the pole should be allowed to deteriorate.

Other Indigenous Approaches

But this traditional contrast between the approach of indigenous Northwest Coast peoples and Euro-Americans is too often seen as a defining contrast between two different world views, monolithic and unchanging.5 In the Nuu-chah-nulth example just cited, there were not only different approaches favored by an indigenous band and a major Canadian museum, but also between different owners within the band.

       Looked at carefully, other examples suggest that we have overemphasized this theoretical contrast, overlooking the extent to which many conservation practices respond to practical expedients. Traditionally, the treatment of totem poles seems to have been not so much a matter of theory as of social practice.

       The Nimpkish Burial Grounds at the village of Alert Bay, just off the east coast of massive Vancouver Island, holds one of the largest groups of exterior totem poles mostly in their original locations. In spite of the traditional indigenous point of view, we can see that most of the poles are supported by metal posts at their backs and rest on concrete bases (fig.1).

       Moreover, Gloria Cranmer Webster, herself a resident of Alert Bay, has recently commented on the memorial to Billie Moon, an especially renowned pole, carved at Ba’a’s (Blunden Harbor) in 1931 by Willie Seaweed, one of the most respected carvers on the Northwest Coast (fig.2).

Traditionally, when something wore out somebody replaced it. When a pole fell down that was the end of it. You didn't replace it, it had served its purpose. But I think that because of contact with museums and conservators and people like that, we began to look at things in a different way. You know, there's a pole by Willie Seaweed. We know there's never going to be another by Willie Seaweed, and maybe its not right if we allow that to fall down and rot away. I think people have developed a different way of looking at these objects, and as I said I think it has something to do with how we now know something about museums and conservation and history.6

Euro-American Practices

Turning now to recent conservation and restoration practices in Euro-American collections, we find an extraordinary range of approaches. The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, which houses one of the largest and most varied displays of Northwest Coast poles, has conducted the most extensive restoration campaign of any museum (fig.3). The aim of the Museum has been to restore its varied collection of poles as part of a dramatic display representing the indigenous groups of British Columbia. Because their physical histories were so different before entering the Museum, this has required different treatments for different poles.7

       The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, has a different type of totem pole collection, most notably a group of magnificent early nineteenth century poles, salvaged in 1957 from deserted villages on Haida Gwaii (fig.4). In contrast to the Museum of Civilization, the UBC Museum has followed a hands-off policy in the treatment of these poles, retaining them in the sections into which they were cut when removed and avoiding the usual application of consolidants. Miriam Clavir, the conservator in charge, has tested all the usual consolidants on the back of one of their poles, noting that every one alters the appearance of the surface. The accepted trade-off is that the raw wood occasionally sloughs off tiny particles, sometimes visible around the bases of the poles.8

       Contemporary totem poles present different problems and opportunities for Euro-American collections. Four poles by guud san glans, Robert Davidson, have received the most meticulous treatment of any exterior poles. The ideals of modern conservation closely parallel those for modern medicine, with careful monitoring and preventive conservation preeminent. The conservation treatment for Breaking the Totem Barrier and for Three Variations on Killer Whale Myths, raised in 1989 and 1986 respectively, equals that for the finest sculpture in leading museums internationally.9

       Euro-American conservators have also led in the application of advanced scientific techniques. At the Liverpool Museum (part of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside), laser cleaning has recently been used in the restoration of a major nineteenth century Haida house front pole from Haina (New Gold Harbor), on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), accessioned in 1901.10 In Vancouver, BC, Andrew Todd (AT Conservation Systems Ltd.) has been developing conservation management computer software for monitoring the condition of exterior totem poles; using dataloggers, Global Positioning System, digital camera and video recording equipment, portable digital measuring equipment, handheld laser range finder and tilt sensors.11

Collaborative Treatments

Let us turn now to recent collaborative treatments, where First Nations councils, experts, and artist-carvers, and Euro-American government agencies, museum administrators, curators and conservators, have combined to decide on and carry out treatments for poles.12

       In only a few cases has detailed information regarding the conservation and restoration of totem poles been made available even to the professional conservation community. A notable exception is Leslie Williamson’s highly informative 1999 article on the restoration of a major Kaigani Haida pole carved about 1875 for Chief Eagle of Old Kasaan, Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, now in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. This article describes the recommendations for treatment by James Hay, based on his extensive experience at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and explains the curator’s and conservator’s rationale for various planning decisions. Most uniquely, however, the article includes an invaluable account of consultations with one of the leading Haida carvers. For this the Museum hired Jim Hart from Masset, now Chief Edenshaw, who brought extensive experience, skill, and authority to the project. This exemplary account, which includes brief explanations of Hart’s rationale for several detailed choices, should be studied by anyone involved in the conservation of Northwest Coast totem poles.13

New Carvings, New Poles

Perhaps of most lasting significance will be the recent carving and raising of new poles, not on commission from Euro-American collectors and institutions, but by individual Northwest Coast families and bands for their local communities. Somewhat off the tourist path, in the Gitksan village of Gitsegukla, on the Upper Skeena River, BC, families are again raising memorial poles in their front yards (fig.5).

       Very much on the tourist route, at Second Beach (Qay’llnagaay; Sea Lion Town), just west of Skidegate, on Haida Gwaii, six new totem poles were raised during six extraordinary days in June 2001 by the Skidegate Band Council (fig.6). These six poles, representing six of the southern Haida villages, were commissioned from six Haida artist-carvers, Jim Boyko, Giitsxaa, Guujaw, Jim Hart, Garner Moody, and Norman Price, carved with assistants and apprentices, and raised with full traditional ceremony (fig.7). In the instalation, we may note especially the return to the traditional practice of installing poles, not with metal supports, but with the bottom section of the poles embedded in the ground, now coated however with wood preservative.14 These six poles are the first manifestations of an ambitious project to create a grouping of longhouses facing the water, fronted by totem poles, as in traditional Haida villages.15 The houses and poles are to join an enlarged structure for the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay'llnagaay, making additional repatriation possible. Together they will form the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre. The total concept includes offices, teaching and interpretive centers, theatre, canoe shed, gift shop, and a tourist lodge. Here we will see totem poles as part of a living indigenous community, joining the display and practice of traditional culture with the development of contemporary Haida life.16

       What I want to stress is that this is a deep commitment to conservation. However, it is not necessarily conservation of the original material object. It is conservation of a traditional practice, in which the totem poles are part of a larger, richer cultural whole. Newly carved poles of this type have various relationships to one or more traditional poles and to the crests and privileges of the commissioning family or tribal group. In recent years organizations such as UNESCO have begun to recognize “intangible heritage”, significantly expanding Euro-American concepts of cultural heritage and giving voice to previously marginalized peoples.17 Yet this term seems insubstantial and continues the dichotomy between Euro-American and Indigenous approaches. I find it clearest to think of the specific values involved in each case. It is a question of what each of us most values and therefore what we wish to preserve. As we know dramatically from Japanese practice with wooded structures,18 and as can be seen equally in Northwest Coast practice, one of the most highly valued aspects is the preservation, the continuation, the constant renewal of traditional practices, not just of carving skills and the use of traditional tools, but of the full cultural context and of a deep understanding of why and how things are done.


Charles Rhyne is Professor Emeritus, Art History, at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, USA, where he has taught since 1960. He is a leading expert on the art of John Constable and on the history, theory and practice of conservation. He has published on images as evidence and, recently, on the use of digital images for research. A number of his recent papers and a scholarly web site are available on his homepage.


1. I have written a closely related paper on this subject, though discussing different examples: Charles S. Rhyne, “Changing approaches to the conservation of Northwest Coast totem poles,” in Tradition and Innovation: Advances in Conservation, ed. Ashok Roy and Perry Smith (London: International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 2000), pp.155-160, color plates 7.1-7.4. In both papers I use the term “conservation” to refer to the entire field of conservation, preservation, and restoration.

2. The scholarly literature on totem poles is extensive, including a few excellent studies on the conservation of individual and groups of poles. The only other broad-ranging publication on the conservation of totem poles is Andrew Todd, “Painted memory, painted totems,” in Painted Wood: History and Conservation, ed. V. Dorge and F.C. Howlett (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 1998), pp.400-411.

3. Gloria Cranmer-Webster, "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 (Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1986) 77-79.

4. Heather Richardson, Totem Poles: Treatments and Ethical Considerations Involved in Their Conservation; B.A. thesis for the Department of Conservation, DeMontfort University, Lincoln, UK, 1988.

5. A thoughtful, indepth study of the relationship between the conservation values of museum conservators and First Nations individuals has been written by Miriam Clavir, based largely on her experiences as conservator at the Museum of Anthropology, the University of British Columbia, and on invaluable interviews with other conservators and First Nations individuals: Preserving What is Valued; Museums, Conservation, and First Nations (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2002). Although totem poles are mentioned on only a few pages, most of the issues discussed apply.

6. Gloria Cranmer-Webster, in interview with Miriam Clavir in Preserving What is Valued, op.cit., p.156.

7. In the only extensive analysis of the Great Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Judith Ostrowitz examines the Museum’s collaging of poles and houses from different Northwest Coast groups into an artificial museum display. Especially revealing is her discussion of the lack of specific family and village coherency within the display for each tribal group. Her chapter is based on interviews with senior museum staff and First Nations artist-carvers who worked on the Great Hall project, most of whom she reports found this collaging suitable for the CMC museum display. Judith Ostrowitz, Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), chapter 2.

8. Totem poles at the UBC Museum are illustrated in Totem Poles: An Illustrated Guide (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1981), by Marjorie M. Halprin, until her recent death Curator of Ethnography at the Museum. Although this book does not discuss conservation or restoration, it is perhaps the best single introduction to totem poles.

9. I have published a detailed description of the conservation program for these poles in Expanding the Circle: The Art of guud san glans, Robert Davidson (Portland, Oregon: Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, 1998), pp.19, and in “Changing approaches,” op.cit., pp.157-158. Both publications include color details of the well-preserved surface of these poles after twelve years exposure out-of-doors in New York State.

10. An account of this laser cleaning is forthcoming in M. Cooper, M. Solajic, G. Usher and J. Ostapkowicz, "The Application of Laser Technology to the Conservation of a Haida Totem Pole," Journal of Cultural Heritage, due in 2003. This special edition is devoted to the papers at the fourth international conference on Lasers in the Conservation of Artworks (LACONA IV), held in Paris, September 2001.

11. Described in “Valadier: Pilot Project: Northwest Coast Totem Poles,” on the web at

12. In a longer article, it would be important to examine other forms of collaboration, such as the repatriation of poles from Euro-American museums to their original Northwest Coast communities.

13. Leslie Williamson, “The treatment of a Haida totem pole: all things considered?,” in Objects Specialty Group Postprints, vol. 6, ed. Virginia Greene and Emily Kaplan (Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1999), pp.2-10.

14. In a personal letter of 31 Oct. 1998 to the author, Philip Ward writes: “. . . one of the things I hate most about almost all modern poles. That is the practice of carving the whole length of the log, so that it has to be supported by a hideous steel I-beam set into the lower five or six feet of the back, with corresponding bolt heads (sometimes concealed and sometime not) at the front. For years I tried to persuade our carvers at the BCPM (now RBCM) to leave an uncarved foot so that the pole could be erected in the traditional way, but they always swore that cedar was too expensive to “waste” any on a buried foot. My point was that today we could design the pit and treat the foot so that it would not rot.”

15. For a list of previous attempts to create a composite Northwest Coast village and museum models see Rhyne, “Changing approaches,” op.cit., pp.158-159.

16. The Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre project and the six poles raised in June 2001 are fully described in the press book prepared by the Skidegate Band Council for the pole raising.

17. See the UNESCO web sites: “Preserving and revitalizing our Intangible Heritage and “Some considerations on the protection of the intangible heritage: claims and remedies”

18. See Knut Einar Larsen, Architectural Preservation in Japan (Paris: ICOMOS International Wood Committee, 1994; available from Tapir Publishers, Trondheim, Norway).


Fig. 1. Totem poles, most in their original locations, in the Nimpkish Burial Grounds at the village of Alert Bay, BC; showing that most of the poles are supported by metal posts at their backs and rest on concrete bases. Photo: author, Aug. 1994 .

Fig. 2. The 1931 memorial to Billie Moon, by the revered carver Willie Seaweed, in the Nimpkish Burial Grounds at the village of Alert Bay, BC; showing the left arm of the giant Dzunukwa reattached slightly too high and her right arm resting on the ground. Photo: author, Aug. 1994.

Fig. 3. Totem poles in the Great Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec; showing poles from different Northwest Coast villages, tribal groups and families, restored and reconstructed in various ways, one newly carved, for an impressive museum display. Photo: author, Aug. 1994.

Fig. 4. Totem poles in the Great Hall of the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver; showing poles salvaged from the deserted villages of K’uuna ’llnagaay (Skedans), Sgang Gwaay ’llnagaay ( Ninstints), and T’anuu ‘llnagaay (Tanu), Haida Gwaii, displayed in the sections into which they were cut, unrestored and untreated with consolidants. Photo: author, Oct. 1995.

Fig. 5. The Gitksan village of Gitsegukla, on the Upper Skeena River, BC, showing family memorial poles in front of houses, the right pole newly carved, painted and raised. Photo: author, Sept. 1994.

Fig. 6. Totem pole by Garner Moody, representing the village of Ts’aahl ‘llnagaay (Chaatl), resting in excavated pit and on cradle, with local people and visitors ready to pull the ropes that will raise the pole. To the right are the four poles raised the previous four days; at Second Beach, just west of the village of Skidegate, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) as part of the projected Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre. Photo: author, 8th June 2001 .

Fig. 7. Top of totem pole by Jim Hart, representing the village of K’uuna ’llnagaay (Skedans), part of the projected Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre; showing the high quality surface of a contemporary pole by a master artist-carver. Cormorant is surmounted by three watchmen with moon in front. Photo: author, 6th June 2001 .

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