Behind the scenes with a MOA curator

Recently, UBC’s Museum of Anthropology received major donations of significant Northwest Coast artworks: the Friedman collection of early works by renowned contemporary Haida artist Bill Reid, and a ceremonial club received by Captain James Cook from B.C.’s Nuu-chah-nulth people 234 years ago.

Karen Duffek, MOA Curator of Contemporary Visual Art/Pacific Northwest, gives an insider’s view of what it’s like to handle and care for such precious objects.

 How did it feel when you saw the gifts for the first time?

Both of these donations were surprises for us: out-of-the-blue offers by extremely generous donors. In the collection of Bill Reid artworks donated by Dr. Sydney Friedman, a gold bracelet in the shape of a raven (pictured above) really made our jaws drop, since this piece was unknown to us, and had never before been exhibited or published.

Bill Reid made that bracelet in the 1950s using his full bag of goldsmithing tricks, and you can really see the joy he took in creating this gold raven in the round, with individual feathers cut out and reinforced from behind, and a beautiful, almost hidden hinge with which the bracelet can be opened and closed for wearing.

With regard to the carved club (pictured below) collected among the Nuu-chah-nulth people by Captain James Cook in 1778, and recently donated by the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts, it’s amazing to contemplate its journey. The image that it presents, of a hand grasping a sphere, has connections to some other carved clubs from the Northwest Coast, but it also carries many questions with it, and I think people will continue to speculate about its meaning for years to come.

What is it like getting the opportunity to handle such pieces?

It’s a privilege to be able to hold special pieces like these in your hands—gloved hands, that is! It gives you a better understanding of a piece if you can feel the weight of it in your hands and try out the hinge or examine the underside, since this is, of course, how they were meant to be seen.

Both of these gifts were major ones for the university, and involved celebrations to unveil the works and to publicly acknowledge the donors. Numerous staff members worked hard to create the displays, write labels and press releases, design special mounts, and involve community members and family.

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