Totem pole

About this object

The Haida pole seen rising from the ashes of the museum (see Before and After section), is one of the most remarkable images of war-time Liverpool (now World) Museum. Poles are raised to mark potlatches, deaths, building a new long house, forming new political connections through marriage and receiving a name. This pole stood in front of “Something Terrible Happened House” – the northernmost house in the village of Xaayna (Haina), Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, Northwest Coast, Canada). Carved during the 1860s or 1870s from western red cedar, it shows the crest figures of both wife and husband who lived there.

The pole was too big and too heavy to evacuate from the museum prior to 3 May 1941 so it remained as the centrepiece of the Middle Mayer Hall that displayed the museum’s important ethnographic collections. Despite the intense fire, the flying shrapnel from the bomb and the flooding from the hosespipes, the pole survived.

Once again the pole can be seen in the atrium of World Museum.

Object specifics

  • Type
  • Culture
    Haida; NW Coast
  • Artist/Maker
  • Place made
    Americas: Northern America: Canada: British Columbia: Queen Charlotte Islands: Xaayna
  • Date made
    1860s - 1870s
  • Materials
    Wood Cedar
  • Location
    World Museum, Ground level, Atrium
  • Acquisition
    Purchased from Charles Newcombe
  • Collector
    Charles Newcombe
  • Place collected
    Americas: Northern America: Canada: British Columbia: Queen Charlotte Islands: Xaayna
  • Date collected
  • Measurements
    12000 mm x 1100 mm
  • Note
    The ca. 12 metre pole was purchased from J. Wesley, descendant of the couple who erected the pole - his step-father 'Killer Whale Watching What He is Doing' of the 'Successful Fishermen' family and his mother 'The Seaweed Eater' of the Eagle Clan 'The Low Ground People'. The pole was standing in the village since at least 1884 - when the earliest photograph showing a panorama of the village was taken, and it was likely carved in the 1860s or 70s. It is a 'house frontal pole', with an oval entrance cut through the base, and it stood before a traditionally built house at the northern end of Xaayna which bore the name 'Something Terrible Happened House' The crest figures of both wife and husband are featured. From top to bottom the figures are: Three watchmen, Ts'aamus (supernatural snag with frog in mouth), Grizzly bear with two supernatural cubs, Sgaana (killerwhale). Henry Forbes, the Director of the Museum at the turn of the century, was keen to acquire a pole for the museum's collections and commissioned Newcombe - then a prominent collector - with the task. Newcombe was known to the Liverpool area - he worked for 4 years in Rainhill Asylum (1874-1878), before setting off to work in Canada. Newcombe presented the Museum with the Xaayna pole in 1901, along with 45 other Northwest Coast items (predominantly Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth). Since its accession into the collections the pole has long held a prominent place in the museum's exhibits. It was one of the only objects left standing in the galleries after the Blitz of 1941, which devestated the museum and destroyed much of its collections. During this time the pole suffered shrapnel damage, and minor burning to the three watchmen figures at the top of the pole, but otherwise it survived the bombing almost unscathered. Subsequently, it has been redisplayed in the museum for many years. It finally came off display in 2000, for conservation work and preparation for its new installation in the Atrium, openned to the public in 2005. For this display, the Museum approached the Haida Museum at Qay'llnagaay for intput into the interpretation of the pole to the public.
  • Related people
Object view = Humanities
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