Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver: 1988

These tea towels are much smaller than my regular ones.  They are unbleached linen, giving a greyish/fawnish background, and are hand-printed which makes them  quite unique.  They are striking pictures. If you wanted to buy one, they are available on eBay or etsy.  For all those readers who think I’m bonkers, clearly there is an interest world-wide in tea towels!!  The C. Harper Kwakuitl Thunderbird is a very well-known tea towel, especially in Vancouver.  The term Kwakuitl refers to the people of the NW Pacific Coast, mainly on Vancouver Island.  The Thunderbird is a legendary creature, a supernatural bird of power and strength. The Thunderbird is an image seen frequently around Vancouver, especially on Totem Poles.  The artefacts of the Plains Indians were also on display at the museum and the museum is full of folklore about North American Indians (and I have several books to prove it!).

On our Canadian holiday in 1988, John and I spent an extra four days in Vancouver at the end of the escorted tour.  After all the emotions and excitement of the journey: ‘finding’ John’s brother, Sam, in Toronto after so many years of being out of touch;  the phenomenal journey from Calgary to Banff and Jasper; crossing the Canadian Rockies by train, it was lovely to have four days on our own, time to decide what we wanted to do without having to worry about other people.  I had studied anthropology for my first year at university; I nearly did my degree in anthropology.  Throughout the Canadian holiday I had become fascinated by the history of the  First Nations  People.  By the time we got to Vancouver I really wanted to visit the Museum of Anthropology, which was on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

As large museums go, I would have to say this is probably my favourite of all time.  I thought that Vancouver was a really beautiful city and this museum matched that.  I remember seeing it for the first time and being surprised at its strange beauty.  It was designed by Arthur Erickson in 1947, an architect renown for his work in concrete; it was certainly ahead of it’s time and was not always greeted with admiration.  I think he was able to use concrete to create beauty, especially for the purpose of a museum which needs large spaces and display areas.  The design creates a light spacious feel, high ceilings, large windows with lots of interesting spaces to display artefacts. The total design is based on the post-and-beam architecture of the NW Pacific Coast First Nations People.

The design for the museum allows for the display of huge items like canoes carved out of trees, alongside much smaller items like stone carvings from the Inuit Peoples.  Because the University of British Columbia has such a reputation in the field of anthropology, the museum did not just focus on First Nations People.  It’s approach is international, recognising both the differences and similarities between different cultures.  Today the museum holds 535,000 artefacts, 40% of which come from Asia.  I spent most of my anthropology course discussing the rural nomads of South Sudan so seeing displays about them was very exciting.  Some of the most significant works are the thorn carvings of the Yoruba tribe.

I have some great memories from that day at the Museum of Anthropology: one of my best memories is of the huge Totem pole which stood at the bottom of a large flight of stairs and stretched way above what might have been a ceiling; the outdoor displays of tents and canoes; the beautiful wood carvings and a demonstration of how they were done; the displays of where the territory for each of the Nations lay; the animal skins and descriptions of skinning the animals.  It was fascinatingly interesting.  I remember the gift shop which was full of unusual gifts, many of which ended up as Christmas presents for my family and friends.  I bought four things for myself from the shop: the most important  was this wonderful tea towel.  I was very restrained in that I only bought one; these days I am sure I would have bought more.  The second was a freestanding wooden carving of the Thunderbird, about 18 inches tall in dark wood. It is a beautiful carving.  Together with this, I have a much smaller and flatter Thunderbird that hangs on the wall.  The final thing was a small, stone Inuit carving of a face which hangs round my neck on a leather ‘string’.  I still have all four things but I certainly didn’t expect to see the tea towel on eBay nearly 30 years later.  I am glad other people appreciate what I saw in these tea towels.

Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s