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When Museum Artifacts Go Home

The Museum of Vancouver embraces 'repatriation.' But returning relics home is not without controversy.

Kate Follington 8 Jul

Kate Follington is the director of development and marketing at the Museum of Vancouver. She's worked extensively with non-profits in the area of communications and development in Asia, Australia and Canada. Trained as a journalist, she worked for five years as a program producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, before joining the CBC as an associate producer in Vancouver. Kate acknowledges the contributions of Joan Seidl, MOV's director of collections and exhibitions and Emily Birky, a PHD student of Anthropology at UBC, for this article.

At the end of a labyrinth of hallways in the Museum of Vancouver, behind two large double doors, 70,000 pieces of priceless heirlooms are hidden away. It's a breathtaking collection: historical wood carvings, First Nations masks, an entire wall of deer horns and moose heads, railway paraphernalia, and row upon row of carefully wrapped ball gowns. Sitting on shelves 100 feet deep and 10 feet high, the items have been carefully placed and numbered according to theme, ranging from textiles and gold mining, to gaudy neon signs like the Blue Eagle Café, just one of 55 signs in the neon collection.

Wandering past wide-eyed heads of elk, deer and caribou, there's an almost cinematic feel to the space. Vancouver's history, unfolding from aisle to aisle. But where did it all come from, who does it belong to, and who should own it now? Returning historical objects to their original communities -- a process known as repatriation -- is an arduous, expensive process for any museum, and not without controversy. But for the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), it represents a critical part of the growing role of museums in forging stronger cultural ties with First Nations communities around the globe, and it starts with a cloak.

Discovering the korowai

Examining the MOV's collection over 20 years ago, a textile expert from New Zealand immediately recognized a particularly interesting Maori cloak. The cloak, or korowai, was woven with flax, its threads dyed a dark brown. Toi Te Rito Maihi knew it to be originally stemming from the Wairoa area of Northern New Zealand, an area known for its distinct, iron-rich mud.

Like many pieces in the Museum's collection, the cloak was treasured and preserved for decades by a Vancouver family before it was finally handed over to the museum for ongoing preservation. The cloak has been passed around B.C. for some time. According to the current head of collections and exhibitions Joan Seidl, it belonged to Sir James Carroll, a Maori leader and politician who championed the cause of Maori land rights. Traveling to Vancouver around 1916, Carroll presented the cloak to the family of George Ham, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Ham's descendant, Joan Myers, played keeper to the cloak until 1986, when she presented it to the museum for safekeeping. Four years later, Maihi saw the cloak in the collection and heard its story. She grew excited, researched, and confirmed the piece had considerable value to the Maori culture.

The enthusiastic textile expert returned to New Zealand, the memory of the cloak floating in her mind. The disconnect between the cloak's then-resting place within the tagged items of MOV's collection, and the spiritual significance of the piece to the Maori people of Wairoa, would niggle at Maihi for 20 years.

Bringing the cloak home

In April 2010, the museum received a letter of request for repatriation of the cloak from the Wairoa Museum, in the North Island of New Zealand. Attached was a letter from a now much older Maihi.

"Although twenty years have now elapsed since I saw the korowai, the knowledge of its presence so far from the original owner's home has remained with me," she wrote. "With increasing age, I have felt a need to ask that the korowai be returned to its place of origin where it will be treasured for the memories of a great man."

Erina Kuai of the Wairoa Museum wrote similarly in the accompanying repatriation request letter: "Our Tipuna (ancestor) Sir James Carroll was and continues to be held in high esteem in our town. . . The whole family, indeed the whole community of his home town would be proud to bring home his taonga (treasure), acknowledge and pay tribute to him in the tradition of his native Maori people."

Repatriating objects from a museum collection back to their original communities is still considered a controversial subject for some museums. It can be experienced as conflicting with their very purpose; if they repatriated all their valuable pieces, why would people come to the museum?

However, for others -- including The Museum of Vancouver -- the complexity of repatriating objects has moved beyond whether it should be done at all, to how to repatriate objects in a way that forges positive relationships, particularly between museums and First Nation communities. The return of the ancient and treasured Sechelt image (known by the Sechelt Nation as "Our Grieving Mother") in October, 2010 is a good example. The well preserved stone carved image of a woman embracing a small child is considered one of the City of Vancouver's, if not Canada's, most culturally significant ancient artifacts. The Sechelt community worked intimately with the Museum to honor the return of the carving, with ceremonies both at the Museum and within the Sechelt community.

With the repatriation of the Sechelt image well underway, the timing of the request for the return of Carroll's cloak couldn't have been better. The museum had on hand UBC doctoral student Emily Birky, who had already spent months working directly on the repatriation of the Sechelt image.

Similarly, for the korowai, Birky and MOV collection head Joan Seidl gathered all the necessary documentation and approvals before the treasured cloak could be finally transported back to its home in the Southern Hemisphere. The cultural reception on its return was clearly significant for the Wairoa community. Set amongst a New Zealand sub-tropical garden, Carroll's cloak was laid out flat and carried across the grass by Maori men and women adorned in feathered cloaks, or kakahus. They led a procession up to the porch of the Marae (a carved meeting house), where the cloak was placed on display for the entire community to view. Songs and the traditional Haka were performed as part of the ritual in returning the cloak to the area and the Wairoa Museum.

In early 2011, the Museum of Vancouver received further news that the cloak's return had borne a lecture series on Carroll, a book and an award-winning Maori performance of song and dance at the National Matatini Competition for tribal groups. It's an example of the value certain objects can have for communities. And for the museum, repatriation is a chance to breathe life back into objects that might otherwise remain unnoticed.

But Birky's work and research around the repatriation process at the museum has revealed some barriers to future repatriations.

The rules of repatriation

Until recently, Birky said there was nothing to guide museums through a repatriation process, and no answers to questions like: how to check authenticity and deal with competing claims? What standard of preservation is guaranteed by the community making the request? And who is responsible for paying the transportation and administrative costs?

It wasn't until 2006 that the museum drafted its first policy around how to deal with repatriations. However, Birky points out, although it might define a process, each request and response is unique. The philosophical views on preservation and repatriation can also be quite different depending on the First Nation community and its resources.

According to Birky, "Some communities will not want the objects to be preserved at all, like totem poles being preserved under man-made conditions, which would be experienced by some people as false preservation. Some people believe that objects in general should go through a natural decaying process." Identifying objects is also a challenge.

"Not all objects have attached records. People may have personal collections from their travels, from hikes or family heirlooms and donated them to the museum, but they won't always have records on where the pieces came from." She points out that objects from the turn of the century are particularly difficult to manage. "When people had the idea that First Nation communities might disappear, there was a mass gathering of objects, (and) also a lot of pot hunters -- people who were not interested in preservation, but interested in the sale of objects."

Between the flurry of object pilfering and poor record-keeping by collectors, it has been difficult for the museum to be able to show exact evidence of where pieces may have come from. Still, some pieces are easier to identify than others. In the case of the Sechelt carving, there was a clear trail of records attached to the piece. In 1926, it was sold to the museum by Dan Paull, a member of the Sechelt community, and was approved for repatriation by the City of Vancouver in September 2010. A story unto itself, the Sechelt image spawned the construction of a new museum by the Sechelt community, built to house and preserve the famous stone sculpture once the repatriation process was completed.

Bringing the collection online

So, is digitization the answer? A major digitization project currently underway at MOV may ease some of the challenges around the identification of historical objects. Although not specifically intentioned as an aid to repatriation identification, the digital display of MOV's entire First Nation collection will offer better public access to pieces rarely seen in public.

Funded by the BC History Digitization Program, each object is photographed and carefully recorded into a computer database, ready for loading online. The digitization project is costly but important, particularly if the Museum is to fulfill its commitment to offering greater public access to Vancouver's collection. Some First Nation communities are discussing the option of digital repatriation and co-management of significant objects with MOV. Without the facilities to preserve them, First Nation communities can access their artifacts digitally for educational or story telling purposes.

Digital repatriation is gaining steam globally, and there are some successful examples. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the University of Texas worked together 10 years ago to create virtual exhibits of American Indian cultures with communities and schools, utilizing the museum's digital collection of objects for use in cultural education programs.

Digital repatriation may also prove a solution to the enormous cost of repatriation, which includes the complicated identification process and relationship building, and the careful transportation requirements of ancient objects. While the museum faces dwindling funding for its basic core operations, and funders focus more on project related grants, repatriation requests don't fit neatly into funding guidelines and can take a long time to process. Despite the challenges, the museum is determined to continue processing repatriation requests as they come in. The justification is best summed up by Carwyn Jones, the Maori armed with delivering Carroll's cloak back to Wairoa.

"There was a real sense that this was a wonderful occasion for the whole community," Jones said. "Just about everyone who spoke throughout the day talked about the return of this cloak as marking a coming together and re-energizing of the community, and felt that it was symbolically important for the spirit of our people."  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous

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