The museum’s layout is a cool and spacious collection of halls designed by Arthur Erickson, the eminent architect also responsible for converting the Vancouver Art Gallery. Particularly outstanding is the huge Great Hall, inspired by aboriginal cedar houses, which makes as perfect an indoor setting for its thirty-odd totem poles as you could ask for. Huge windows look out to more poles and Haida houses, which you’re free to wander around, backed by views of Burrard Inlet and the distant mountains. Most of the poles and monolithic carvings, indoors and out, are from the coastal tribes of the Haida, Salish, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl, all of which share cultural elements. One of the museum’s great virtues is that few of its displays are hidden away in basements or back rooms, but are beautifully presented in the Great Hall and Multiversity Galleries close by: the latter opened in 2010, part of a large renovation project that, among other things, also added a pleasant café.
Most of the permanent collection revolves around Canadian Pacific cultures, but the Inuit and Far North exhibits are also outstanding, as are the jewellery, masks and baskets of Northwest tribes, all markedly delicate after the blunt-nosed carvings of the Great Hall. Look out especially for the argillite sculptures, made from a jet-black slate found only on BC’s Haida Gwaii islands.
Housed in a separate rotunda, The Raven and the First Men, a modern sculpture designed by Haida artist Bill Reid, is the museum’s pride and joy and has achieved almost iconic status in the city. Carved from a 4.5-tonne block of cedar and requiring the attention of five people over three years, it describes the Haida legend of human evolution with admirable virtuosity, depicting terrified figures squirming from a half-open clam shell, overseen by an enormous and stern-faced raven.