By Catherine Gilbert
Special to the Mirror
When Beth Boyce, curator at the Museum at Campbell River, ran into Heidi Swierenga of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) last week and heard about the destructive fire at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, her first thought was that she should offer her services to the Centre.
Before joining the Campbell River Museum, Boyce interned at MOA and has also completed a Masters in Art Conservation. When the centre director Sarah Holland heard from Boyce, she immediately invited her to come and join the team in Alert Bay that were assisting after the fire.
It isn’t just the building damaged in the fire that concerns staff at U’mista and the people of Alert Bay; they are extremely concerned about saving the invaluable collection of potlach masks housed in the building that were damaged and now need experts to work towards restoring them.
If you have ever visited the U’mista Cultural Centre, you would have seen the incredible display of masks that the families of Alert Bay are proud to have back in their community.
Many of the masks were sent to Ottawa, to New York and even further afield at a time when potlachs were outlawed.
The collection at U’mista celebrates the return of the masks to the N’amgis people and links them to their past and the practices of their elders. The Centre, opened in 1980, was purpose built to house the collection, and the room that the masks have been displayed in aptly showcases these original pieces and helps to convey the deep sense of pride, beauty and spirituality that the masks inspire.
In all, there are 113 masks. Twenty-two of them were soaked with water when the sprinklers went off, and many are covered with soot. Boyce has a only few days to spend there, and is currently cleaning soot off the masks and other pieces that were in the room, and showing the U’mista staff how to do it so that they can carry on once she has left.
Although the Centre is still opened, it could be months before the room and the masks are ready again for viewing.
The Museum at Campbell River, which recently exhibited the life and art of Kwakwaka’wakw artist Doug Cranmer who came from Alert Bay, has had a long association with the Centre, and Boyce is very pleased to be there at a time when the staff and community will benefit from her assistance.