Royal B.C. Museum exhibit focuses on family

By Denise Titian, June 16, 2017

A carved eagle headdress in the Maquinna display case. Napoleon Maquinna presented this headdress to a fisheries officer in 1923. (Denise Titian photos)

Victoria — 

The Royal British Columbia Museum has opened a new exhibit that celebrates B.C. families over time. The Family: Bonds & Belonging exhibit opened Friday, June 2. It features British Columbians from all eras and cultures and it challenges one’s perception of conventional family.

Dr. Scott Cooper, RBCM Vice President; Collections, Knowledge and Engagement, opened the exhibit by acknowledging the people of Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, on whose land the museum was built.

“More than 300 families were consulted and more than 130 of them loaned us artefacts to include in the display,” said Cooper.

He went on to say that the family exhibit is about gaps; silences in our broad history. It is also a part of the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday. There are costumes, diaries, family albums drawn from the museum collections and also on loan or donated by members of the public.

Upon entering the exhibit the visitor will see that the walls are filled with photographs. To the Nuu-chah-nulth visitor, one photo stands out prominently. It is a black & white image that appears to have been taken in the early 1900’s and features a Caucasian man with three younger aboriginal people. They are Fred Thornberg, Ahousaht’s first general store keeper, and three of his six children.

Thornberg was a cantankerous old man, who, as much as he claimed to despise natives, married an Ahousaht woman, Sadie Jim, raising six children together.

The photos on display show a wide range of British Columbians from the 1800s to a few decades ago, representing all races and walks of life.

A photograph of children sitting in front of a Christmas tree that appeared to have been taken in the 1970’s brought feelings of nostalgia for one visitor who said, “It feels like you should know them but you don’t, you just remember the era.”

“There’s something personal or relatable for everyone; it’s about bringing people together, said Mairin Kerr, RBCM Communications Specialist, of the exhibit.

It’s about British Columbians – from birth to death. It’s about gatherings, teams, and things that bring different cultures together, she added.

And it is interactive. Visitors are invited to share photos, audio clips or handwritten notes. They may engage with the exhibition on social media with the hashtag #RBCMFamily to share their own family photos or to leave comments. Photos taken and shared with the hashtag #RBCMFamily will appear in a digital frame in the exhibition.

Upon entering the doorway to the exhibit you will notice a beautiful wood carving. It is a sculpture carved by Hesquiaht artist Tim Paul, named How We Revere the Family. The piece was commissioned by the RBCM for the 1999 Out of the Mist – Huupukwanum-Tupaat (Treasures of the Nuu-chah-nulth Chiefs) exhibit. It has been in storage for years and was taken out to be displayed as the Family: Bonds & Belonging exhibition’s introductory piece.

A short distance away is a display case featuring Kitty (Conin) White’s masks and headdresses complete with a bentwood box that could date back to the 1700’s. Kitty White married an Englishman named Aaron Denton White and together, they raised their large family in Sooke, BC.

Kitty was a Nuu-chah-nulth woman from Ehattesaht whose name was Owechemis. There are at least three stories about how she ended up in Sooke. One states she was captured and traded as a slave. Another story  from late Pacheedaht Hakuum Ida Jones says Kitty White was given in exchange by her father, the chief, to end a war between his and another First Nation, according to RBCM literature.  

“They knew what it meant when the girl was lifted up high like this... peace offering – stop the fight – not sold! not slave!” (The Sooke Story: The History and the Heartbeat, 1999).

Kitty was separated from her Ehattesaht family for several years when her brother eventually found her.

He gave her a set of carvings contained in a cedar bentwood box that was once owned by either their grandfather, or great grandfather, who was an Ehattesaht chief.

Kitty White died in 1930 after donating her gifts from her brother to the RBCM. A letter to the museum director, John A. Murray, Justice of the Peace for the Sooke area wrote, “An old Indian woman Mrs. Kitty White whom I have known well for 30 years, called upon me today saying that she had in her possession three or four Indian masks which, out of gratitude for favours received from the Government, she would like to give to the Provincial Museum at this time, as a Christmas present.” Mrs. White also had “an Indian box which was the property of her grandfather, second chief of the Indians at Ahateset? near Nootka [probably Ehattesaht, north of Nootka Island] and it is supposed to be about 200 years old.”

Kitty’s family has grown tremendously since then. Six of her descendants attended the opening, thrilled that their great grandmother’s gifts were on display. Audrey Goudie, Crystal Dunnett, Doug Dunnett, Shery-Lynn Blanchard, Theresa Gwen-Dunnett and Elaine McLean-Parmun proudly posed for photographs. They said they are working on their family tree and hope to make some family connections in Ehattesaht one day.

Across from the Kitty White exhibit are three paintings by artist W. Landon Kihn. They are depictions of 1920’s Ha’wiih, including Chief Joseph (Tla-o-qui-aht), Chief Frank Savey (Ehattesaht) and Captain Jack – descendant of Old Chief Callicum (Fort Rupert). While it appears that Kihn took some artistic liberties with the Ha’wiih clothing designs, his work on facial detail is exquisite.

Finally, there is a display case devoted to the Maquinna chiefly lineage. The case contains a carved mask and a book showing an artist’s rendering of what Chief Maquinna looked like at the time of contact with Captain James Cook. Information about the display reads Maquinna is a high-ranking Nuu-chah-nulth family name with a long lineage. A Chief Maquinna made history by welcoming Captain James Cook to Yuquot in Nootka Sound in 1778. Chief Ambrose Maquinna died in 2001 and is believed to have returned three days later – as the young orca, Luna. His son Mike Maquinna is the current hereditary chief.

The exhibit is rounded out with interactive displays that allow visitors to listen to audio stories, view shared family film clips, and read letters from long ago.

Photo Gallery: