The oldest gallery at the American Museum of Natural History has been completely overhauled into a stunning gallery that showcases the creativity, scholarship and history of the cultures of the Pacific Northwest.
Opening to the public on May 13, the Northwest Coast Hall at AMNH has been curated by Peter Whiteley, curator of North American Ethnology at the Museum, and Ḥaa’yuups, Nuu-chah-nulth scholar and cultural historian, who worked with a group of consulting curators from the Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Haíłzaqv, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, Tlingit, and Tsimshian communities.
With input from these Northwest Coast cultures, this new gallery illuminates them as vibrant, living communities with thousands of “glorious works of art, spirituality, and ingenuity,” the museum says.
The 10,200-square-foot gallery, which opened in 1899 under the direction of anthropologist Franz Boas, has been recontextualized to present a fuller picture—there are about 9,000 items and 78 intricately carved totem poles and a 63-foot-long Great Canoe affixed to the ceiling.
It started with us listening.
While communities from First Nations represented in the hall took part in the exhibit’s creation over 100 years ago, the hall had its shortcomings. According to Scientific American, Kaa-xoo-auxch/Garfield George (head of the Raven Beaver House of Angoon/Dei Shu Hit “End of the Trail House” Tlingit) said in 2017 that the placards containing information for the public could do a better job at explaining the artifacts and their significance.
Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architects and the museum’s exhibition department developed the hall’s new design with the cultures in mind, wanting to better represent the people the hall represents.
“It started with us listening. The strong voices of the Northwest Coast cultures are vibrantly amplified through the new installation of objects, presented in the round and with contextual relationships to one another,” he said in a statement. “As an architect, the opportunity to really spend time absorbing and conversing with the multiple cultures represented in our project has greatly informed how we were able to bring out a fresh design, one that provides clarity and sense of place while respecting and responding to the deep context and diverse stories that the meaningful art objects present.”
The hall is now divided into alcoves that feature more than 1,000 artifacts and items of cultural significance in 50 clear display cases, giving 360-degree views of many of the objects. For the first time, museumgoers can get up close to these items and see their intricacies clearer than ever.
Not only that, but the iconic 63-foot-long Great Canoe (pictured above), which is the largest Northwest Coast dugout canoe in existence, is back in the hall for the first time in 70 years. In the 1880s, it was suspended from the ceiling of what is now the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds, and later in the Ethnological Hall, which opened as the Northwest Coast Hall in 1899. In 1960, the canoe was moved to the 77th Street foyer, aka the Grand Gallery, and displayed at floor level. After undergoing extensive restoration in 2006, including the removal of its figures, the roughly 2,200-pound canoe was once again suspended from the ceiling in the newly updated hall.
There are also more than 60 monumental carvings, ranging from 3 to 17 feet tall, including an immense Raven Nuxalk house entrance pole, four brilliantly painted Tsimshian house posts, and other sculptures expertly restored by conservators with guidance from native experts. A massive Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask with sculpin and sea-raven, a 37-foot-long Nuu-chah-nulth ceremonial Wolf curtain, a Haida bentwood container called “The Final Exam,” and spectacular Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Gitxsan headdresses and clothing items are all on view. New pieces that were created for the hall include a Suquamish woven basket, a “shadow,” or re-creation, of a beaver-shaped Tlingit canoe prow with a remarkable history and a 6-foot red cedar pole that shows the steps of carving a monumental pole.
Aside from the beautiful items within the glass displays, the hall comes to life with Indigenous experts in the four corners of the space. When you enter, to the left of the entrance is an introductory theater that presents a short video by Tahltan/Gitxsan filmmaker Michael Bourquin, which gives visitors a sense of place by featuring Indigenous experts who introduce the history, persistence and present concerns of the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast.
To the right of the entrance, the exhibition, “Our Voices” shows the perspectives of co-curator Ḥaa’yuups and the consulting curators on the past, present and future of life on the Northwest Coast as well as issues like environmental conservation and racism.
The Hall also includes a rotating gallery of works by contemporary artists that bridge the gap between tradition and modern expression, including fashion and youth culture like skateboards and sneakers and “Living with the Sea,” an exhibition that explores what the ocean means to Northwest Coast Native peoples and includes the impressive sculpture “Whaler’s Wife Transforming into a Whale” (2018, below) by Makah artist Greg Colfax KlaWayHee. There are also digital displays that highlight the peoples’ persisting traditions in the face of challenges that continue to confront their communities today.
Curator Peter Whiteley says that he hopes visitors to the hall gain a deeper understanding of the diversity and resilience of these living cultures and the complexities of Native Northwest Coast ideas, scholarship, and histories.
“I want my great-grandchildren to come here,” added co-curator Ḥaa’yuups. “I want them to be proud of where they’re from, proud of who they are, proud of the history of their family and the achievements of our people, the intelligence of people, the knowledge of people, the science of people in my community. So I want the Hall to reflect that reality, that there’s a different way to think about the world around you.”
The Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History will open to the public on May 13, 2022.