This is an archived article.

May 23, 2002

Photo collection documents Northwest coast culture

The Burke Museum has received a major photographic collection, donated by photographer Adelaide De Menil, which documents the culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

The 20,000 De Menil images, of which the Burke has received a portion, were captured between 1966 and 1968, and illustrate a monumental sculptural tradition on the brink of extinction. De Menil visited Northwest Coast villages from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska, photographing weathered totem poles, cemeteries, and village sites. Many of her images, together with poetic text written by Haida artist Bill Reid, were published in the important book, Out of the Silence (1971), and helped to document a pivotal moment in Northwest Coast history.

At the time that De Menil and Reid were working on Out of the Silence, Northwest Coast culture indeed appeared silent to outsiders. No new poles had been raised for decades, and few people still alive remembered or practiced the traditions that gave the poles their meaning.

“After the government made potlatching illegal in Canada in the late 19th century, totem poles were no longer raised,” said Dr. Robin K. Wright, Burke Museum Curator of Native American Art. “Many were sold to museums and collectors, but many were left to decay naturally in their original sites, in the traditional way that these cultures always allowed graves and old poles to decay.”

Since Out of the Silence was published, many of the monuments that De Menil photographed have fallen, rotted, or otherwise been destroyed by the elements.

“At nearly a hundred villages and cemeteries on the Northwest Coast, some of the greatest sculptures in the world were on the verge of disappearing,” said George MacDonald, Burke Museum director. “It is with the recognition of the scale of this loss that the value of [De Menil's] archive is fully realized. The importance of the collection lies in its outstanding record of the last vestiges of a sculptural tradition that had, for the most part, died out.”

On Oct. 3, the Burke will launch a full-scale retrospective exhibition based on the photographs of De Menil, and featuring rarely seen Northwest Coast monumental sculptures from the Burke collection. Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of the Totem Pole will be augmented by a wealth of public programs, lecture and film series, family activities, performances, workshops, seminars, and artist residencies. A specially developed exhibit Web site will make the De Menil collection accessible to students and aficionados worldwide.