Bill McLennan shares insight into Audain Art Museum collection

UBC Museum of Anthropology curator visits museum for event on Saturday (July 22)

It’s not hard to appreciate the stunning work housed in the Audain Art Museum.

But on Saturday (July 22) you’ll have a chance to dig a little deeper when Bill McLennan, curator emeritus, Pacific Northwest, for the UBC Museum of Anthropology, takes part in a discussion about the various First Nations art in the museum’s collection.

The Question caught up with McLennan to get a taste of the event, which will take place at the museum at 2 p.m.

The Question: How did you become involved in the Museum of Anthropology and Northwest coastal art and culture?

Bill McLennan: I studied business and design and I was asked to work for the Museum of Anthropology when it was trying to open and basically I was managing production and exhibits. It was a privilege to work with Bill Reid and Robert Davidson and Dempsey Bob so eventually I became a curator. I’ve gone back and forth working with MOA and working with collectors like Michael Audain and other private collectors that are bringing Northwest coastal art back to B.C. — pieces that left 150 years ago, sometimes 200 years ago and have been floating around the world in private collections — and they’re bringing these pieces back now, which is really exciting.

Q: What is your draw to Northwest coastal art?

BM: First off, from a physical point of view it’s really one of the world’s great unique art forms.

Q: How so?

BM: In the classic form in the intellectual character of how it’s produced. My research has been in painting and I did a major research project using infrared to look at old Northwest coast paintings and bring them back. I think that’s the most exciting thing. It’s an extraordinarily old art form but it’s a living art form and there are First Nations communities connecting to it and bringing it back alive. Contemporary artists are revitalizing the art form and bringing it back.

Q: Let’s talk about the Audain Art Museum. Tell me about the masks and their role in First Nations culture.

BM: Very often people generalize and say, ‘masks of the Northwest coast’ but the fact is that all the different communities have different ways of looking at their pieces. When you’re down here in the south you will not see any masks in museums because the communities don’t allow them to be displayed, only in their potlatches. You won’t see a mask from this area. As you go north they are more theatrical. If you went into a contemporary person’s house you wouldn’t see a mask hanging on the wall; it would be wrapped up special and it would only come out for the potlatch to be presented in that format. They are theatrical in the sense they are not living creatures.

Q: What mask in the collection has made the greatest impact on you?

BM: There’s one that I really enjoy. It’s a Nuu chah nulth mask — a mask from the people on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. It’s really powerful and invocative. Some people have speculated on what it is, but no one really knows for sure. No Nuu chah nulth person wants to step out and say, ‘This is what it is’ because it was so long ago. They don’t want to be caught up in the game of trying to give it a history that might not be totally accurate. It’s an extraordinarily powerful piece.

Q: What’s one thing people will discover and learn when they come to the Audain Art Museum to your discussion on the 22nd?

BM: Certainly one thing I’m going to talk about is the amazing Coast Salish piece that is in the entrance of that gallery. It’s so hard to find old pieces like that. Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria were settled so early that that material just disappeared before it was collected by museums. To have a powerful piece like that in the entrance is really important. It sets a whole character of standards of looking at form and structure and how things were carved.

Q: What do you hope people come away with when they leave?

BM: Always a greater respect for the First Nations people whose land we live on that’s never been sorted through the treaties or any of the other things that should have taken place and recognizing that’s still something that has to take place. It’s not going to go away until it gets done.

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