Exhibition Reviews

Entwined Histories: Gifts from the Maisie Hurley Collection

@ the Museum of North Vancouver, Jan 25 – Nov 6, 2011

The permanent collection at the Museum of North Vancouver is similar to the Red Deer museum in its chronicling of the region’s settlement and industrial development through dioramas of old kitchens and school houses.  The relative lack of a First Nations history in this part of the museum is interesting in its juxtaposition with the history of Maisie Hurley as told through the collection, as a white woman who was considered a close friend of and advocate for many First Nations people in British Columbia.

Entwined Histories was mounted in collaboration with the Squamish nation following Hurley’s desire for the collection to be housed in a museum.  This is meant to symbolically return the objects to the people and communities who had gifted them to her signaling the affirmation of friendship between Hurley and her First Nations friends (Fortney 2010).  The various items in the collection are thus displayed homogeneously under the rubric of ‘gift’ whether they originate from the Hupa (California), Assiniboine, Anishinabe (Ojibway) nations or from Hurely’s close personal friend August Jack Khatsahlano of the Squamish nation.

There is a thin line between Hurley’s gifts and the collecting practices of her parents who are seen as having participated in a salvage paradigm and collecting First Nations objects  as tourist souvenirs (Fortney 2010), which is not evident in the exhibition display. Many of the items are displayed in visible storage format in pull out drawers with small labels.  These issues seem to be avoided in favor of emphasizing Hurley’s harmonious relation with the First Nations people.  The series of pastel portraits of First Nations sitters done by Hurley serves to further emphasize this, as many of them were painted from photographs with the backgrounds removed, heightening their romantic quality (Fortney 2010).

The display of some of these items has been contentious in their communities of origin, as is the case with the Squamish nation. It is unclear if other communities were contacted about the exhibition.  It seems that Hurley’s documentation of some of her gifts was lacking, while her close personal relationship with Khatsahlano, who gifted Hurley several items, made collaborative efforts much more tenable with the Squamish.

A sxwayxwii mask made by Khatsahlano was removed at the request of members of the Squamish community, apparently after seeing pictures of it published in a Vancouver newspaper.  Although the mask was a replica that had never been used for ceremonial purposes, its removal highlights the sensitive nature of displaying such items and leads me to wonder about the display of some of the other items in the collection.

This is not to downplay the significance of this collection as a collaborative venture on behalf of the museum and the Squamish nation or Hurley’s contribution to First Nations advocacy in Vancouver.  Founder of the Native Voice, representative of the Native Brotherhood, Hurley and her husband Tom gave legal aid to many disenfranchised people, often without charge (Fortney 2010).  Certainly, this woman was an exception in many aspects.

Overall, however, I felt that Hurley’s relationships in the community in some ways excused the curators of contextualizing the collection in ways that signaled the problematic aspects of displaying such objects.  Perhaps I am overstating this too much, as I do think the removal of the sxwayxwii mask – but, importantly, not its label – demonstrates the museum’s willingness to have a sensitive ear to the wishes of First Nations peoples.

I welcome any thoughts or comments you have about the exhibition.

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