Early Scottish museum collections of Haida argillite carving
This thesis is about four historical collections of Haida argillite carvings now at the National Museum of Scotland, the University of Aberdeen Museums and the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Since the early nineteenth century Haida artists have carved argillite, a carbonaceous shale, into objects featuring Haida and European-inspired motifs, for trade or sale to non-Haida others. Scots Colin Robertson, William Mitchell, James Hector and John Rae acquired argillite as part of broader collections from the Northwest Coast of Canada made during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Each of these men was employed by, or affiliated with the Hudson’s Bay Company. This thesis questions how the meanings and statuses of these objects, collected and deposited in Scottish museums between the 1820s and 1860s, have changed over the nearly two centuries of their existence. Research at these three museums, and at British and Canadian archives, provided the material that shed light on the historical circumstances of the approximately 30 objects constituting these collections. Semi-structured interviews with Haida carvers, community members and experts, and with museum curators elicited insights into the ways these objects are made meaningful today. The thesis examines the collections in four key contexts. First, it explores the ways in which they have been displayed and interpreted at the three museums, shedding light on the trajectories by which museums have represented the objects of others. Secondly, it describes the context in which the argillite carvings were produced, circulated and collected by sketching the social and political character of the Northwest Coast as it transformed through the decades of the fur trade to European colonization. How these objects transformed in status and value according to the agendas of their collectors is the third context, which reflects the character of relationships between Indigenous peoples and newcomers. Finally, I resituate these collections in the context of contemporary Haidas’ perspectives on the value and meaning of argillite carving(s), and propose that these objects can be understood as “inalienable commodities.” The argillite carvings in these Scottish museum collections are objects of exchange, produced and circulated in the contact zone of the mid-nineteenth century Northwest Coast. As such, they are windows into relationships between Indigenous and European people during this period. Collected as curiosities but remade into objects of science, biography and art, this study traces their shifting statuses as they have moved through various regimes of value. This thesis therefore characterizes the exchanges that have occurred around these objects as ongoing and dynamic.