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Archive for the ‘Prince Rupert’ Category

Over the years, the Museum of Northern British Columbia has gained a reputation for working with the local First Nations in Prince Rupert. But now, unless appearances deceive, museum officials seem willing to throw away that reputation just so curator Susan Marsden can flex her muscles in her ongoing struggle to assert her authority over Tsimshian master carver Henry Green and his apprentices. The conflict is being fought over the carving shed, a popular attraction where Green and the other carvers have been working, but what’s really at stake is the consistent disrespect shown by the museum and city officials.

According to the chronology provided by Green on Facebook, the carving shed has been in existence since 1980. While hardly a comfortable place – it has no washrooms, running water, nor working furnace — in the last twenty-nine years, it has been a workspace for many of the biggest names in Northwest Coast art, including Alvin Adkins, Edward Bryant, Heber Reece, Lyle Campbell – and, of course, Green himself, who has worked there on and off since it was built.

The carving shed has not always co-existed peacefully with the museum, being a place where artists came and went without ever being employees or having much regard for museum hours. But, when relations were uneasy between the museum and the carving shed in 1993, Green says, communication helped to reduce the tensions on both sides. Mostly, the shed has continued to be an important attraction despite minimal promotion by the museum.

However, since last summer, relations between the museum and the current crop of carvers have steadily worsened. The phone was removed, amidst allegations that it was being used for long distance calls, a claim that Green denies. Then the locks were changed, including the ones on Green’s private storage. Green says that he had to wait four hours to get into the shed to get his tools, and that “during this time I was berated and talked down to.”

In another episode last summer, the artists erected a carving sign directing tourists to the carving shed. When Green’s partner and his daughter investigated, they found the sign locked away by the museum, on the grounds that private signs could not be put on museum property. Not only has the sign not been returned, but, as a result of the incident, Jennifer Davidson, Green’s partner, was banned from the carving shed by Susan Marsden, while Morgan Green was told that she would have to apologize before she could return. Marsden’s claim is apparently that Morgan Green kicked and swore at her – charges that Morgan denies.

Matters came to a head in January, when all the carvers were given one week to vacate the shed. Considering the number of carvings in the shed, including some two meter poles, this is a next to impossible demand. The artists requested at least a month to vacate. Meanwhile, they are worried that their tools, many of which are highly specialized and specifically created by them or for them, will be confiscated by the museum.

The carvers have tried to talk to the museum’s board of directors, but all they have heard is secondhand accounts that the shed will be renovated, then assigned to groups for specific projects. The implication seems to be that the current group of carvers will not be among them. Moreover, since it is February and no permit for renovations appears to have been taken out, the carvers are more than a little skeptical of the claim.

The situation remained unpublicized until Morgan Green started a FaceBook group called “Expression Not Oppression” four days ago. Since then, over four hundred people have joined the group, including many local first nations people and art-lovers.
Prince Rupert mayor Jack Mussalem insists that supporters have heard only one side of the story. However, when he phoned to give it to me, he demonstrated no understanding of what upset both the carvers and their supporters (who include me).

Nobody is questioning the right of Marsden to evict the carvers, not even the carvers themselves. But what bothers people is the disrespect. If what I have heard about Marsden’s behavior is even remotely true, she seems to have abandoned common courtesy.

Even worse, Marsden, Mussalem and other officials of the museum and Prince Rupert seem to be acting with a total disregard for the sensitivities of the first nations. Considering the history of the last century and a half, many among the first nations are understandably sensitive about anything that suggests the arbitrary abuses of power, particularly by people of European descent. And when you add the fact that first nations artists are leading figures in preserving the cultures, insults directed to an internationally-known figure like Henry Green are easily seen as insults to the community itself. You can see these attitudes being expressed in the comments in the Facebook group.

Art-lovers and collectors feel much the same way. Witnessing a conflict between artists whose main desire is to continue working undisturbed and empire-building bureaucrats, you want to guess with whom they’ll side?

Possibly, there are mitigating circumstances that would explain the behavior of officials. Yet, if so, they have not bothered to explain those circumstances. Instead, they have simply asserted their right to act as they have chosen, and refused to address the question of their behavior.

Very likely, they can get their way in the short run. However, in the long run, their petty victory in what seems no more than a bureaucratic turf war threatens to be won at the expense of all the good will from the first nations that the museum has built up over the years. And, if that happens, the museum could take decades to regain that good will – assuming that it ever does.

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