A Daring Rescue: the Story of the Ulster Museum Totem Pole

I can safely say that I have visited the Ulster Museum about a hundred times in the last ten years, and I’ve never once looked in detail at the massive totem pole in the main atrium. I mean, it’s understandable, as we all have our favourite exhibitions, or we’re at the mercy of small people who really need to see the dinosaur bits again… So, I’ve passed it, but not paid any real attention to it. Until now. 

Over the last few months, I’ve been volunteering behind the scenes, sorting out paperwork connected to some of the artefacts on display, and found out some surprising facts about the totem pole which have led me to view it in a different light.

First things first. Totem poles are sculptures carved from large trees, and they can have many purposes: they can represent stories, important events, families and clans, or honour the dead. In North America (the USA and Canada), totem poles are typically seen as being part of the cultures of many First Nations peoples of Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

Standing 12 feet tall, the Ulster Museum totem pole is believed to have been shaped by a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation carver named Sam Williams in the 1930s in Victoria, British Columbia. From what our records reveal, it seems that the totem pole was created purely for decorative reasons, rather than being culturally significant. It was sold to Sir John Milne Barbour (a famous linen merchant) in 1931 and placed in the grounds of his home in Dunmurry. These are, I’m sure you’ll agree, fairly run-of-the-mill facts.

What was decidedly un-run-of-the-mill was the report detailing the frantic rescue mission undertaken to acquire the pole. Yes, amid letters between the Ulster Museum and British Museum investigating the background of the carver, I found an account of how Ulster Museum staff had been given only one day’s notice to move the totem pole from Dunmurry to their stores. It seems that there wasn’t time for the normal removal/acquisition paperwork to be undertaken, and in fact, the whole thing reads like a work of fiction.

To call it a “race against time” isn’t an understatement: a team of six people from the Museum headed to Dunmurry to save the totem pole (including a driver, a joiner, a Conservation officer, an Ethnography Curator and two others who presumably were responsible for actually lifting the thing into the back of the van). It’s safe to say that if the Ulster Museum staff hadn’t mobilised so quickly and efficiently, it’s unlikely that the pole would have survived, as it was at serious risk of environmental damage or vandalism. Having been carefully removed from its home of seventy-odd years, the lichen-covered totem pole was transported to the Museum stores for repairs and conservation. However, it still took some time for the formal acquisition to occur.

This rather unusual tale of artefact acquisition has opened my eyes to what can go on behind the scenes in a museum – it’s not all sitting at a desk, writing letters and making persuasive phone calls. Sometimes, just sometimes, you need a joiner, a getaway driver, some muscle and the ability to get your hands dirty.

Image: BELUM.C6000