Performance as Exhibit: When Edward Curtis met the Kwak-waka’wakw

Hannah Turner


When Edward Curtis first arrived in the small community of Alert Bay in 1914, he had set out to make a film about its vibrant and extraordinary culture and was unaware that his film would still be in use almost one hundred years later. He could not have foreseen the way the descendants of people in the film have subsequently used the original footage to re-appropriate and repa­triate aspects of their culture. This pa­per uses the case study of the perfor­mance, “Edward Curtis Meets the Kwakwaka’wakw: In the Land of the Head Hunters,” to examine the role of performance in museums. The con­temporary performance screens the original ethnographic Curtis film, “In the Land of the Head Hunters,” fol­lowed by a dance performance by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community. This paper examines the use of this juxtaposition in terms of re-appropriation and cultural memory. This paper stems from research on the relationships between source com­munities and tangible and intangible cultural heritage. It critically examines the idea that the museum has be­come a place that ‘freezes’ or ‘mummifies’ cultural heritage. This pa­per argues that museums and First Peoples can collaborate to make the colonial museum a place of active re­negotiation through performance. The performance uses dance to highlight the relationship the Kwakwaka’wakw have with the traditional ethnographic film. Through direct community devel­opment this performance acts to re-appropriate ethnography. It involves the viewer in the complicated rela­tionships between community, mu­seum and object. This paper argues that this performance works to en­gage the visitor in cultural memory through the processes of repatriation and re-appropriation, and introduces a new way of thinking about objects and the connection they have to a community’s past, present and future.

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