Article by Sarah Carter

A Contemporary Cabinet of Curiosities

ABINETS OF CURIOSITIES, odd collections of natural specimens and cultural artifacts, have long appealed to scholars interested in the history of collecting and the origins of the modern museum. These peculiar assemblages, however, have also made appearances in publications investigating the history of science, specifically those that have turned their attention toward objects. Their encyclopedic nature and scientific narratives reveal their relevance outside the realm of visual culture, and it is this multidisciplinary approach that makes cabinets of curiosities so intriguing.

These collections bridge the gap between art and science, and in doing so have brought art historians, social anthropologists, and scientists together to ponder over coral formations, automatons, and wooden sculptures small enough to fit into the inner cavities of hollow walnuts. In the early modern period, cabinets of curiosities represented a collector’s breadth of knowledge and were considered microcosms of the world at large. They were often amassed through a lifetime of careful collecting and tended to privilege the unusual and the exotic. The challenges facing early modern collectors are not unlike those faced by modern-day curators. How does one best represent the material and natural history of a place? How does one choose among the many objects those which tell the best stories?

The Royal BC Museum has come up with a unique solution, providing better access to their collection online by showcasing 100 Objects of Interest. In essence, the cabinet of curiosities has been reconceptualized as a webpage, one that allows users to explore the cultural and environmental history of British Columbia. From more than 6,000,000 artifacts found in the museum, the 100 objects chosen have been thoughtfully compiled from countless treasures, many of which remain hidden in the depths of museum storage. At the heart of this online collection is the idea of collaboration. Curators, archivists, and other members of staff were able to submit their choices for consideration, and the museum hopes that greater access will attract international interest and create new opportunities for collaborative research. Each artifact and artwork is presented with a description, and a major success of the online collection is that an allencompassing meta-narrative is replaced with the individual stories that accompany each object.

The 100 Objects of Interest presents itself as a microcosm of the greater collection. Some of the objects are museum favourites, while others aim for greater exposure. Museum audiences are rarely given an opportunity to view oil paintings from celebrated artist Emily Carr alongside natural specimens as strange and wonderful as hot vent tubeworms. An online platform allows for greater access to Carr’s oeuvre. One of her paintings, Kispiox Village, is a perfect inclusion in the 100 because of the artist’s prolonged interest in First Nations’ spirituality and way of life. Kispiox Village, painted in 1912, was intended to document the totem poles of the village “for history.” Carr’s emphasis on Indigenous culture ties the major themes of the exhibition together. Placed alongside a seemingly eclectic mixture of objects, Carr’s paintings offer an intimate look at the past from a non- Indigenous perspective.

Moreover, decorative art makes up a significant proportion of the collection, and a Tla-o-qui-aht mask stands out as an object valued for its decorative, cultural, and historical associations. The mask, skillfully carved with human features, is painted with striking colours. It is thought to be part of the HuupuKwanum, or belongings, of a family from the village of Opitsaht in Clayoquot Sound. According to stories, the expression of the carved face mimics the amazement of a white man when he first learns the extent of the Tla-o-qui-aht territory. The mask provides a compelling Indigenous perspective, and documents a specific exchange of ideas and emotions between First Nations people and European settlers. Included in HuupuKwanum are hereditary names, songs, dances, rights, and privileges, as well as land, resources, and objects that challenge ideas of ownership and wealth. Although the mask was purchased by the Royal BC Museum in 1986, the rights to it remain with the Sitakanim family.

Among the 100 is an object with strong associations to traditional forms of decorative art. Like the Tla-oqui- aht mask, it can be understood as a product of cultural interaction, and an artistic hybrid, incorporating jewellers’ techniques and Haida designs. This gold box is the work of a master goldsmith, Bill Reid (1920-1998), who sought out early ethnographic publications and objects from museum collections in search of traditional Haida forms. Born to a Haida mother and an American father, Reid was the great nephew of Haida artist da.a.xiigang, Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), and the grandson of carver Charles Gladstone (1878-1954), who specialized in carving argillite and who had likewise learned his craft from Edenshaw. Reid did not begin to incorporate Haida motifs until 1954 when he visited Haida Gwaii and saw for the first time a pair of Edenshaw’s masterfully carved bracelets. Unlike some of the pieces included in the 100, Reid’s gold box is represented both online and in the First Peoples’ gallery in the Royal BC Museum.

The unification of natural specimens, artistic masterpieces, and historically significant oddities in the online collection paints a more complex, intriguing, and true-to-life image of British Columbia. As viewers, we get a sense of how the province came to be, and the problems it faces today, whether social, environmental, or political. Most significantly, the stories presented through the compilation of 100 Objects of Interest give a sense of strong provincial identity, one that celebrates its past and looks optimistically towards the future.

Sarah Carter graduated with an MA in Art History in 2014 with a specialization in British Romanticism of the eighteenth century. She now works with Decorative Art at Waddington’s Auctioneers and specializes in porcelain, silver, and glass.

Tla-o-qui-aht mask
Artist unknown,
but attributed to Atlieu
Image courtesy of
Royal BC Museum