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Museums: Icon of the Northwest Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Roger Kiers

[image]In the 1960s, abandoned and decaying totem poles littered the Northwest coast. Today, the carving tradition is stronger than ever. (Photo by Adelaide de Menil, courtesy Burke Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

For years, visitors to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus have been greeted by two 30-foot-high totem poles standing outside the museum entrance. Now, a new exhibition, "Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles," running until September 2003, gives visitors a chance to learn the story behind this great sculptural tradition.

Thought to have originated in prehistoric Alaska and British Columbia as a way to represent family history, totem-pole carving flourished in the early nineteenth century after the introduction of metal tools. Totem poles fell into disuse in the late 1800s, though today such carving is enjoying a significant revival.

Despite the current exhibition's title, don't expect to see many totem poles. The show is built around the recently donated photographs of Adelaide de Menil who, along with Haida Indian artist Bill Reid, documented decaying monumental sculptures up and down the Northwest Coast in the 1960s. These images are interspersed with rarely displayed carvings from the Burke collection.

Tapestries on the walls evoke the dense coastal forests that were the source of the poles. Cedar planks serve as the backdrop for de Menil's haunting images of leaning and fallen poles being consumed by forest. As the exhibition clearly shows, carving is not a lost art among contemporary native groups. Images of rotting poles are balanced with photos of new ones, brightly painted and proudly displayed in communities all along the coast. Video footage shows a pole raising, with an entire community pulling on ropes. The huge pole slowly rises and leans to the left, scattering a small group of participants. Then there's a final surge and sigh of relief, as it stops, motionless and upright.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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