Historic Chief’s Chest On View in Haida Gwaii

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Earlier this year, Museum conservator Samantha Alderson took a cross-country journey to a remote archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Her task? To accompany an elaborately carved and painted historic chest from the Museum’s collection back to its home nation for a celebration more than a century in the making.

The chest, which measures 63 inches across and 27 inches in height, had been carved sometime before 1880 by an ancestral holder of the title Gidansta, Chief of Skedans Village in the Haida Gwaii archipelago, about 150 individual islands located south of Alaska and north of Vancouver Island. The chest features an elaborate crest of a mountain goat and a moon on each of the broad sides, and grizzly bears on the ends. In 1901, the chest was sold to a collector named Charles Newcombe, who in turn sold it to the Museum the following year.

Chest sits on a table while conservator uses precision tools to restore the paint.
Conservator Samantha Alderson in the Museum’s Objects Conservation Laboratory, who helped restore the chest’s luminous colors, works on the hawk moon carving.
© AMNH/C. Chesek

One hundred and sixteen years later, the chest returned to Haida Gwaii to play a role in a milestone event: two days of potlatch ceremonies honoring the memory of the most recent Gidansta and the inauguration of the name and title’s new holder. The chest’s use is a novel and creative model of collaboration, says Curator Peter Whiteley, who was in attendance. “This loan represents a new kind of partnership between indigenous communities and major museums,” says Dr. Whiteley. “It’s particularly important given our ongoing collaboration with the Haida Nation, and our project to update installations in our historic Northwest Coast Hall in dialogue with First Nations representatives.”

The Museum recently announced a multi-year effort to restore, update, and conserve the Northwest Coast Hall, its first hall and cultural gallery, which opened in 1899. The Hall was conceived by legendary anthropologist Franz Boas, who worked closely with his long-term collaborator George Hunt, whose mother was Tlingit and who was also a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw (then referred to as Kwakiutl) community at Fort Rupert, British Columbia. In their work, Boas and Hunt communicated the extraordinary value of Northwest Coast cultures to the world, in the face of frequent government and missionary repression at home.

The historic wooden chest is now on display at the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay, where it will be on view through Spring 2018. “This important project continues to strengthen community pride, provide opportunities to observe and reflect on the legacies of historical and contemporary Haida art, and the strengthening of Haida culture and identity,” says Scott Marsden, director of the Haida Gwaii Museum.

Chest sits on a table while conservator uses precision tools to restore the paint.
Conservators cleaned and restored the chest before it was sent to Haida Gwaii for the potlatch ceremony.
© AMNH/C. Chesek

Before the chest travels back to New York next year, Gidansta’s sons—themselves accomplished carvers—plan to study it and create a replica that will remain in Haida Gwaii. 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.