Celebrating Aboriginal Heritage Month:
Mungo Martin and UBC’s Early Totem Pole Collection

One can’t help but be struck with a sense of awe when walking amongst the magnificent and massive totem poles in the Great Hall of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. However, the history of the University's collection and preservation of totem poles and other large scale First Nations carvings actually predates the construction of the Museum (1976) by almost fifty years and forms a very interesting chapter in the institution’s history.

In 1927 the Alumni Association presented the University with two Musqueam poles during the second annual homecoming. The Musqueam nation agreed to sell the sole surviving totem poles to the Alumni Association only on the condition that they would be placed on the University campus adjacent to the Musqueam reserve. Chief c̓səmlenəxʷ (spelled "Tsem-Lano" at the time) and other members of the Musqueam community attended the presentation dressed in traditional regalia. His explanation of the symbolism of the three-generations-old totem poles in his Musqueam language, hən̓q̓əmin̓əm , was translated into English for the audience. The carvings were later installed in the University’s Botanical Garden.

Group photograph at Alumni Association presentation of totem poles to UBC [Group photograph including Sherwood Lett, Chief c̓səmlenəxʷ (Tsem Lano - centre standing), and President L.S. Klinck at Alumni Association presentation of totem poles to the University, November 1927] UBC 1.1/969
Lily pond in Botanical gardens[Musqueam carvings in UBC Botanical Garden, July 30, 1929] UBC 1.1/167

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There is no further mention of the totem poles in University records until 1941 when Hunter Lewis in a memo to President L.S. Klinck indicated that the Musqueam poles had become badly and extensively decayed. He suggested that the totem poles "are not merely attractive ornaments but also objects of art, with considerable aesthetic and historic value, and of great interest to a public that extends beyond the limits of the University...". Unfortunately nothing seems to have been done as Lewis some six years later wrote to the UBC President Norman Mackenzie again citing his concerns about the deteriorating totem poles.

In 1947 Lewis again wrote to President Mackenzie to propose that the University acquire additional totem poles. He observed that good Tsimshian poles from the Nass River and good poles from the Queen Charlotte Islands were available only in limited numbers while Kwakiutl poles from the Skeena River and Alert Bay were more numerous because totem carving developed later amongst the Kwakiutls than the other two tribes. Lewis emphasized that because the practice of carving totem poles had been discontinued, the number of poles available decreased with each passing year. Many poles were simply falling and rotting, many in deserted Indian villages.

President Mackenzie requested that Lewis provide "a detailed account of the kinds of poles desired and the estimated cost” to which he replied that the University should collect totem poles "representative of all the principle types of carving that had been produced in the province..." Lewis pointed out that the ethnologist Marius Barbeau had proposed that the University acquire two available poles from the Nass, two to four from the Queen Charlotte Islands and two sets of house poles from the Victoria Island Kwakiutl valued at approximately $5,000. Later that year Chancellor Eric Hamber provided the necessary funding. Barbeau and his assistant Arthur Price procured two communal houses and five totem poles which were transported by ship to Vancouver.

In the fall of 1947 the University created a Committee on Totem Poles and at its first meeting the discussion included: restoration by recarving missing parts; treating poles to prevent further decay; painting the poles according to tradition; and selection of site for the installation of the poles. The Committee also proposed that a shed be constructed on the University farm lands to shelter the poles while they awaited repair or restoration. Beginning in spring 1948 a sub-committee supervised the drying, removal of decayed wood, and preservation treatments for the totem poles.

Mungo Martin restoring totem poles[Mungo Martin restoring totem pole, June 20, 1949] UBC 1.1/1528

In 1949, the University recruited Mungo Martin, Chief Nakapenkem of the Fort Rupert Kwakiutl to restore and paint the old Kwakiutl totem poles. Martin, then seventy years old, had carved most of his life but as the demand for totem poles and other traditional artifacts declined, he had become a commercial fisherman to support his family. Martin welcomed the opportunity to return to his craft and took up residence in a small house on the southern part of campus near the carving shed.

Mungo Martin and unidentified man carving and restoring totem poles[Mungo Martin and unidentified man restoring totem poles, October 27, 1949] UBC 1.1/9256-3
Mungo Martin painting totem pole[Mungo Martin painting totem pole, October 27, 1949] UBC 1.1/9256-6

In 1949 the University's totem pole collection totalled 22 pieces some of which had been treated and were ready for installation. After considerable discussion, the Committee selected a site for Totem Park at the junction of Agronomy Road and Marine Drive. Over the next year the University cleared the land, prepared the foundations and erected the totem poles and other carvings in the Park. There were eight pieces installed including two totem poles, two house entry poles, and four native house posts and cross pieces. A local newspaper reported that "These striking examples of native B.C. art form a notable addition to the art possessions of the province.... Major attractions are two Kwakiutl poles, one over 30 and the other over 40 feet high, from Fort Rupert and Alert Bay. Both poles are extremely impressive, combining native legendry with a high degree of artistic skill and creative spirit." (Vancouver Daily Province, September 1950)

Opening of Totem ParkGroup photograph in front of Kwakiutl house poles at official opening of Totem Park, May 16, 1951] UBC 3.1/1282-2
Opening of Totem Park[Hunter Lewis introducing Mungo Martin at the opening of Totem Park, May 16, 1951] UBC 1.1/9773

The official opening of Totem Park on May 16, 1951 formed part of the UBC Congregation ceremony. The ceremony featured a speech by Martin who, dressed in a button blanket and wearing a head-ring of cedar bark, addressed the audience in his traditional language and spoke about his pleasure in contributing to the preservation of the crafts of the old Kwakiutl culture. (Audrey Hawthorn, “Totem Pole Carver” in The Beaver (March 1952), p. 5.

Kwakiutl house poles, Totem Park[Kwakiutl house poles, Totem Park, n.d.] UBC 1.1/13129
Kwakiutl house poles, Totem Park [Kwakiutl house poles, Totem Park, n.d.] UBC 1.1/13182-1

Following the opening of Totem Park, Mungo Martin continued to work on the UBC campus where he carved two new poles which were added to the park.

Mungo Martin with new totem pole[Mungo Martin carving totem pole, October 12, 1951] UBC 1.1/9769-3
Mungo Martin painting new totem pole[Mungo Martin carving and painting totem pole, November 6, 1951] UBC 1.1/9767-1

After completing his work at UBC, Martin subsequently moved to Victoria in 1952 where he continued carving in Thunderbird Park until his death in 1968. As significant as was his own work, Martin also left behind an important legacy in the renaissance of totem pole carving through his students who included Bill Reid, Doug Cranmer, Henry Hunt and his son David.

During the 1950s the University continued to develop Totem Park. In 1959, UBC engaged the services of Bill Reid and Douglas Cramner and for the next three years they would be responsible for carving a variety of traditional Haida sculptures.

Bill Reid with Haida longhouse[Bill Reid examining the Haida longhouse during construction at Totem Park, ca. 1962] UBC 3.1/1624
Construction of Totem Park[View of construction of Haida section of Totem Park, ca. 1962] UBC 3.1/1621
Chancellor Ross at opening of Haida section of Totem Park[UBC Chancellor Phyllis Ross speaking at the opening of the Haida section of Totem Park, June 25, 1962] UBC 93.1/347

The Haida section of Totem Park officially opened in June 1962.

Haida totem poles and long house, Totem Park[Haida totem poles and long house, Totem Park, 1960s] UBC 1.1/1313
Haida totem poles and long house, Totem Park[Haida totem poles and long house, Totem Park, May 15, 1969] UBC 5.2/158-1

Just prior to the completion of UBC’s new Museum of Anthropology in 1976 the carvings from Totem Park were all removed and transferred to the new facility.

Removal of totem poles from Totem Park[Preparing for removal of totem poles from Totem Park, August 1975] UBC 41.1/1359-2
Totem poles arriving at Museum of Anthropology[Removing totem poles from truck at the Museum of Anthropology, August 1975] UBC 41.1/1360-2
Moving totem poles into Museum of Anthropology[Moving totem poles into the Museum of Anthropology, August 1975] UBC 41.1/2509-2
Installing totem poles in Great Hall, Museum of Anthropology[Installing totem poles inside the Museum of Anthropology, August 1975] UBC 41.1/2509-3

NOTE: Contemporary discourse recognizes and uses the names First Nations use themselves (or choose for self-identification). For example, Kwakwaka’wakw is a contemporary form of Kwakiutl. However, historic forms of names are used in this text reflecting the usage of the anthropologists at the time.

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