Reinterpreting the Northwest Coast Hall

"It is my opinion that the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes. I believe that this object can be accomplished only by the tribal arrangement of collections." – Museums of Ethnology and their Classification (Boas 1887)

When Franz Boas first conceived of the Northwest Coast Hall in the late 19th century, it was a revolutionary concept in cultural interpretation. While other museums displayed their ethnological collections by ranking them on a socio-evolutionary hierarchy, Boas put his concept of cultural relativism into practice in the Northwest Coast Hall. In his 1887 manifesto, Boas had argued that individual cultures can only be understood within their own contexts. At the Museum, Boas worked closely with Tlingit-English/Kwakwaka’wakw ethnologist, George Hunt, to construct a hall that spoke to and from First Nations (Northwest Coast) perspectives.

Almost 120 years later, current projects led by Peter Whiteley seek to re-engage with First Nations communities in such a way that sheds light on the vitality and persistence of Pacific Northwest Coast cultures.

Reinterpreting the Northwest Coast Hall
Digital Totem

A digitization project carried out between 2014 and 2016 resulted in the installation of a Digital Totem, featured prominently in the Hall (pictured to the left). This interface introduces Museum visitors to the living people, places, and sounds of the Pacific Northwest, as well as the persisting traditions, languages, music, and stories of Northwest Coast cultures. A telepresence robot installed in 2016 establishes a live connection between the American Museum of Natural History and British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii Museum.

Most recently, a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has sponsored a plan to reinterpret and conserve the hall and its artifacts. On September 25, 2017, the plan to renovate the Hall was announced. In November, 2017, two dozen experts, Native and non-Native, convened at the Museum to discuss how best to preserve the hall’s magic and legacy, but enhance these with respectful inclusions of current perspectives and interests.

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