Curator's Choice: Pitt-Rivers Museum

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The Independent Culture
Dr LaRue is curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford

'My curatorial choice, a 40 ft totem pole, forms part of a 15,000-piece exhibition collected by General Pitt-Rivers in the late 19th Century, which traces the evolution of man through typological detail. It comes from the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the Pacific coast of Canada and stood outside the house of Chief Naetlas of Maset village. The pole itself is essentially a representation of a family tree and was carved from cedarwood. As opposed to the sacred qualities of traditional totem poles, this was simply a symbol of the relative wealth of the chief, highlighted by the nine rings at the top. On the pole there is a carving of the bear wife, a young Haida girl who, having rejected the young men in her village, fled to the forest where she fell in love with a bear, married him and had two sons. However, when she saw that her husband was not a man, she fled back home with her two sons. They continued to live in the wilderness, paralleling the Haida people's dilemma whether or not to accept Western society. In 1893, the chief and his family died in a fishing accident and the pole was given to Henry Belfont, the curator of the Pitt-Rivers collection.

Shortly after its instalment in Oxford, a young boy told the curator there were only five rings on the pole, as opposed to the nine rings in a picture of the pole outside the chief's house. The reply came back from the Islands that, although the Haida people had seen fit to sell the pole after the chief's death, they also had to lessen its importance by cutting down the number of rings to five before sending it to Oxford.'

Pitt-Rivers Museum, open Mon-Sat 1.0-4.30pm, South Parks Rd, Oxford OX1 (0865 512541)

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