The Great Box Project

The three poles are standing tall awaiting the arrival of the replica of the Great Box. 


People gather in the bistro, they are excited to see each other and to see the box they have read about for months.


I sit on the floor excited to witness what’s to come.

The place is packed. Everyone speaks quietly.

It is interesting what being in a Museum does to the volume of ones’ voice.


Jason Alsop, Intern Curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum delivers an excellent overview of the Great Box Project.


Jaalen’s wife Jaskwaan sings a stunning rendition of one of my favourite songs as Jaalen and Gwaai carry out the box for us all to see.

Five years ago Jaalen and Gwaai were on a repatriation trip to Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum when they first met the original Great Box.

Jaalen speaking about that first visit says “I don’t even know if the Museum knew that they had something special…the more you looked at it the more unique, interesting and unusual aspects came through”


Five years later they went back on a special mission to visit the box and create their own textbook, a replica of the original.

Gwaai and Jaalen spent 28 days straight working on the box.

Gwaai said that “every single day we found new things on the box…whoever this guy was he had a deep understanding of the art form. The next step is identifying more of his work…his style is so distinct”


The undercut of the eye is going in an opposite direction,

“we couldn’t figure it out… what we realized is that the cut reflects the light… it is more of a painter principle than sculptural”.


“With a box your canvas is more canvas shaped. What puzzled us was the use of angular forms, usually Haida art has no straight lines. What we figure is that the artist was mimicking the box design and because he was so good- it worked… Though the design looks symmetrical- there is no symmetry in the whole design. The balance and harmony doesn’t draw your eye to the lack of symmetry.”


Gwaai and Jaalen had a hard time with matching the original blue colour. Jaalen said that “in the end we crushed up a bunch of the stone and it looked perfect”. Gwaai said that “when we painted the first side with Native pigment…when it was finished depending on what angle you looked at it, it changed colour.”


When they originally looked at the box, Gwaai and Jaalen thought that the red and black may have been traded paint. However staff at Pitt Rivers tested the paint and found that it was also traditional. A mix of iron, bone and possibly charcoal.


The box will be displayed at the Haida Heritage Centre and Haida Gwaii Museum until mid-August. As a part of my internship I am working with Gwaai and Jaalen on planning programming throughout the Summer in relation to their project.



After that, Gwaai and Jaalen have a custody agreement worked out. Gwaai said that they want the box to be used and not to sit behind glass.


Gwaai and Jaalen decided to start working together after that trip to Oxford. They learned that they could work together and communicate.


Jaalen said that when they were working on the box “they didn’t want to correct anything that we might learn from later”. Interestingly Gwaai said that the front side of the box has more of the unique or unusual features and the back side is more traditional formline.”


The original box is still housed at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Laura Peers who was instrumental in the project, would like to have the box come to visit Haida Gwaii.


Unfortunately, England has laws about giving back or repatriating items. Jason, Intern Curator, said that the Haida Gwaii Museum has developed a positive working relationship with Pitt Rivers and looks forward to working with them more closely in the future.




Congratulations Jaalen and Gwaai, the piece is breath taking.

For more information on The Great Box Project check out:

Blog written by Michaela McGuire, Photographer, Project Officer at GNC & HHC & new-ish Skidegate resident.