Accepted Paper:

Historical Scottish museum collections of argillite carving: Haidas, the Hudson's Bay Company and trade and exchange on the northwest coast, 1830s-1860s  


Kaitlin McCormick (Brown University)

Paper short abstract:

What multiple agencies contributed to the production, exchange and circulation of indigenous northwest coast ethnographic collections in the mid 19th century? This paper addresses this question through an examination of historical collections of Haida argillite carvings in three Scottish museums.

Paper long abstract:

This paper forwards ongoing PhD research into historical Scottish museum collections of Haida argillite carving. Argillite, a carbonaceous shale, has been quarried and carved for sale to outsiders by Haida artists since the 1820s; it is an ongoing tradition that reflects nearly two centuries of Haida agency in global economies, from the fur trade to the art market.

Collections at National Museums Scotland, the Perth Museum and the Aberdeen University Museums were acquired during the fur trade between Indigenous and Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) traders on North America's Northwest Coast. Many works in these collections - such as the exquisite argillite carving of the HBC's famous steamship "Beaver" - represent westerners, their work and material culture, showing how Haida artists participated in new economic opportunities while also documenting the intersection of cultures and the rapidly changing landscapes of the Northwest Coast.

This paper will present original historical research into how and in what contexts these collections circulated before they arrived at Scottish museums. What has emerged from research at the HBC Archives in particular, is a complex picture of the agencies of Haida traders and HBC employees/affiliates at particularly important sites of trade and exchange, including coastal forts and on ships like the well-travelled "Beaver." Scottish museum agencies will also be considered, given their calls to collect from far-flung "country" posts.

These argillite collections present fascinating opportunities to uncover and question the relationships between Scottish museums, and western and Indigenous fur traders in the mid-nineteenth century.

Panel P58
The enlightening museum: anthropology, collecting, encounters