Walking into the British Museum’s Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, the first thing you see is the glass ceiling – 3,312 unique panes of glass forming a bubble-like shape over Europe’s largest covered public square. The second thing I saw when I visited in October of this year surprised me.
A short walk further into the two-acre space, past the information desk, the Reading Room staircase, and alongside the museum’s bookshop and something else looms into view. Two totem poles tower over the Court Café and the thousands of visitors bustling to and fro. At 11 metres, the Haida “Kayung pole” seems to scrape the glass ceiling, its dark cedar wood blending into the shadows of its carved surface. Wood surrounded by stone, steel and sky.
Growing up as a non-Aboriginal person on BC’s west coast meant I had been exposed to plenty of First Nations art and culture. Totem poles dot Victoria, feature prominently in the Royal BC Museum, and are mainstays of the postcards and Emily Carr posters tourist buy in the dozens during the summer months. I’ve always been interested in First Nations artwork and known the significance of the land I live on to the Coast Salish and Esquimalt peoples, but it was never my BC. I identified with my European heritage, my French Immersion education, and my desire to learn about things ‘out there.’
Travelling to the UK was my chance to explore the world as collected by the British Museum. Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Ancient China; anything so long as it was ancient. The remnants from the dawns of civilizations speak loudly and clearly for their respective geographic areas, so tied to history and discovery that their names are known around the world and draw lines of visitors day-in and day-out who come just to say they saw them.
And there, in their midst, were Haida and Nisga’a totem poles. As I explored deeper into the museum more BC First Nations art and artifacts appeared. Some of these items dated to pre-contact days, including some of the first pieces brought to England by Captain James Cook. Other items were newly commissioned pieces of artwork representing a mixing of cultures and the resiliency of the coastal First Nations. The juxtaposition of 18th Century model cedar canoes and 21st Century copper-plated Toyota Tercel by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas hoods shows a continued legacy of culture and artistic excellence originating from BC’s coast.
I saw the Rosetta Stone and the Ming vases, the Sutton Hoo Burial Hoard and the thousands of other final remnants of the perceived long lost cultures from around the world. I had accomplished what I’d set out to do: to see the wonders of civilization and marvel at the exotic creations of those far-away lands. But I also saw the totem poles from my far-away land.
Returning to the Great Court at the end of my visit, my bag heavier from a shopping spree in the gift shop, my drained camera batteries knocking against each other in my pocket, I walked past the Kayung pole and its smaller Nisga’a companion for the fourth or fifth time that day. This is how the world sees my province, my “Pacific World,” not as home to dead civilizations but as a thriving cultural and artistic centre with a long – and continuing – First Nations history. The totems and other pieces may not draw the same crowds as the mummies, but every visitor walks through the Great Court at some point in their visit.
The Haida and the Nisga’a art and stories take pride of place in this greatest collection of the world, Pacific markers at the heart of the British Museum.