Great Box Project

Haida artists working in the Pitt Rivers Museum

Professor Laura Peers, Pitt Rivers Museum & School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography

What did you do?

The project tested an innovative way to allow ethnographic collections to be accessible to their communities of origin, by replicating one key object. The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a collection of materials from the Haida Nation in British Columbia, Canada. In 2009, brothers and professional artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw studied the ‘Great Box’, an 1860s Haida masterpiece in the museum. In September 2014, they returned with carving tools and a blank box of the original dimensions. Working with the historic box, they replicated each carving stroke, learning how it was created.

Who did the project reach?

To share knowledge the artists help open studio sessions with University staff and public, and Oxfordshire carvers and furniture makers. Videography documented the process for the project website. The new Great Box then went home to the Haida Gwaii and was used in secondary school art clesses, public discussions and a Haida Gwaii Museum exhibit.

What was the impact of the project?

Haida people regard the ‘repatriation’ of the Great Box as very significant. Marnie (Haida Secondary School assistant): “… We can see it in books, but to actually come up and see it and feel it and examine it – it can only benefit our community and our people. Having direct access to this will continue to inspire and challenge.” Inspired by the project, the artists are developing a new Haida language art vocabulary, a significant outcome for an endangered Indigenous language for which art terms had not been preserved.

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