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British Museum returns mask to Canada

In an unusually positive move, the British Museum is returning a ceremonial mask to Canada which was taken in 1921. Whilst at the museum the mask was in storage & was never available for viewing.

This story does however highlight once more the ridiculousness of the British Museum Act, whereby the museum is unable to relinquish ownership of the mask, but has to instead give it back on a long term loan.

From:
Times Colonist (Victoria, Canada) [1]

Treasures recovered after decades-long struggle
Times Colonist
Saturday, November 05, 2005

ALERT BAY – On Andrea Sanborn’s first attempt to persuade the British Museum to let go of her people’s ceremonial mask, she showed up with an empty Adidas bag.

“What’s that for?” asked the museum boffins. “I’ve come for the mask,” she said, straight-faced.

Not only did she go home empty-handed on that trip, but they wouldn’t even let her see the artifact, which was buried in deep storage, down in the basement with the spare mummies and winter tires.

Eight years later, relations with the renowned London institution have improved dramatically. Sanborn finally saw her dream realized this week when the museum brought the mask to Alert Bay’s U’mista Cultural Centre, where she is executive director. The event put a punctuation mark on efforts to recover treasures the Kwakwaka’wakw of northern Vancouver Island thought they had lost forever.

It’s a story that goes back to 1921, when 45 natives were arrested for taking part in a then-illegal potlatch ceremony on remote Village Island. Half of them were jailed, but the rest were freed on the condition that their tribes give up their potlatch paraphernalia. Almost 200 masks, rattles and other items were surrendered, ending up in museums and private collections across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

What followed was a long, dogged effort by the Kwakwaka’wakw to recover the lost artifacts, which were integral, they argued, to their culture’s survival. This week’s ceremony, held in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the U’mista centre, marked the success of that campaign. Almost all the seized pieces have been found and returned, and are on display in Alert Bay and at the Kwakiutl Museum on Quadra Island.

Included will be the transformation mask — a figure that opens up to reveal another face underneath — now on long-term loan from the British Museum.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005