Curating…so far.

I realized yesterday that I haven’t lived up to my promise to share my experiences as an intern curator on HHC’s blog.

I guess the first thing I will say is that I’ve been very busy.

When I found out that I had received the First Peoples Cultural Council Art Administration Grant I had already planned a two-week trip to Vancouver. This trip turned into a wonderful opportunity to get started with the internship. My boss at the Haida Gwaii Museum and curator extraordinaire Nika Collison and I began work during my time in Vancouver. We went over budgets, timelines and plans for the Great Box Project and the Patrick McGuire exhibition. It was quite surreal to jump right in to learning about curating. The first piece of advice that Nika gave me about curating was to cover my a** with proper documentation for everything.

I planned a meeting with Kwiaahwah Jones who had previously interned at the Haida Gwaii Museum as a curator before moving to Vancouver and transitioning to curating at the Bill Reid Gallery. Kwi took me through the exhibition that she had just curated titled “The Box of Treasures: Gifts from the Supernatural” featuring the work of Beau Dick.

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She explained to me the difficulty of curating a non-Haida exhibit and trying to share another culture’s stories in a respectful and appropriate way. There are so many layers to curational work, so many things to consider. The second part of my internship will take place in Vancouver and I will be working under Kwi. Although it houses an incredible collection, the Bill Reid Gallery still feels quite a bit like home. Perhaps because Kwi’s there or because there is Haida art on permanent display.

My trip to Vancouver and this internship feels like a progression upwards. Stepping stones to understanding the different levels of curational work and how that work changes depending on which Museum you are working in.

Next, I went to the Museum of Anthropology to meet one of the Northwest Coast Curators Karen Duffek, who will be mentoring me during my time at MOA. I walked in and was directed to wait for her on a little chair. I was extremely nervous and my palms were sweating. Karen and I met, shook hands and then began to discuss what I am doing here at the Haida Gwaii Museum and what I would like to gain from my time at MOA. I like to imagine myself as someone else in these kinds of situations. I feel as if I become someone who is a little bit more confident, more calm and well spoken than I actually am.

Karen had asked that Patrick McGuire pieces in the MOA collection be pulled at for me to examine. Walking into their collection was amazing. Pieces are organized beautifully in sliding cases so they are easily found. I was awe-struck by the sheer magnitude of pieces in the one room that we entered. As we approached a table, I saw them, these pieces that I had only seen online. I put gloves on and got to examine the only paddle I have ever seen of Patricks and unframed original paintings.

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As I walked down towards the end of the table I was amazed by a sketch.

On a coffee stained piece of paper, ripped from a Belmont Hotel notepad was a stunning canoe sketched in black and red pen.

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So detailed and intricate that I knew I wanted this sketch to come home to Haida Gwaii for the Patrick McGuire exhibit.

It was my favourite piece.

Before I went to MOA, I told Nika that I had asked to see the Patrick McGuire collection. Nika told me that although it was past the usual deadline for Museum to Museum loans that I should ask to loan a couple of pieces anyway. So, while staring at these pieces I asked Karen if MOA might consider loaning them for the exhibit. She replied that she didn’t see why not. I tried to hide my excitement. Currently we are still in the process of securing these loans but we have our fingers crossed!

After Karen had given me a behind the scenes tour of MOA, she asked me if I knew Ariane from Massett. I said yes I do. Ariane was at MOA studying the Haida weaving collection as a part of her YVR Airport grant on the same day as I was there to be introduced to MOA. I felt so lucky to be able to see these amazing woven hats and to talk to Ariane and her aunties about the quality, age and design of these pieces.

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I underestimate myself and criticize my work constantly. That day I felt like I knew that I was where I was supposed to be. This work fascinates me, Haida art fascinates me, I love to learn and to see old pieces up close. Before I left MOA I took five minutes to go visit Bill Reid’s Raven and the First Men.

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There was a school group there sitting back in awe of this piece and I joined them in silent admiration.

I left MOA thrilled with a huge smile on my face.

I met an old friend of Patrick’s the night before I left Vancouver. He is an avid art collector and walking into his apartment was like walking into a mini museum. I introduced myself and followed his wife into their dining room. There they were. I stopped in my tracks and stared at them. They were stunning. I didn’t immediately realize they were Patrick’s pieces. Then I noticed the style and asked. They are the best pieces I had ever seen of Patrick’s. Two big watercolours, framed beautifully.

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I couldn’t stop glancing at them as we talked. The collector brought out the two paintings he was willing to loan the Haida Gwaii Museum. I asked if he would consider loaning the two framed on his wall. The answer was an understandable no. I tried not to show my disappointment and thanked him for agreeing to loan the two other pieces he had. I feel privileged to have been in the same room as those pieces. I hope to visit them again soon.

My trip to Vancouver was not the vacation I had originally planned.

Instead it was an eye-opener into a world that I was just beginning to understand.

When I returned home to Haida Gwaii I dove right in to researching and securing loans for Patrick’s exhibit.

I also worked with Michael Mayr who assists the Haida Gwaii museum with everything from exhibit prep and mount making to assisting in curating. Michael and I were tasked with getting the Great Box on display. Nika is amazing at curating from a far (she goes back and forth between Haida Gwaii and Vancouver), she sent us detailed instructions and was on the phone talking to and texting us throughout the whole process. Michael and I took out the objects that were on display, found places for them and carefully put them away. Everything about curating is detailed. We wrote down and took photos of every step of that process.

Before we could put the Great Box on display I had to examine it for any existing damage, or marks. This involved taking photos of it from every angle. Noting any existing damage. I even had some co-workers lift it up above me so I could photograph the bottom.

When the time came to put the great box in place we started with cleaning the case. Which was actually a workout and fun. I never thought I would be standing inside of a display case. I felt like pretending to be a statue and staying in there all day.

In order to fit the box into the case and to ensure that it was at eye-level, Michael creating a foam base for it while I cut out the label. Label making was one of the first things I was taught by Nika, I actually find it quite relaxing. However, my muscles broke the exacto knife I was using. Thank goodness Michael had tools.

Nika Label MakingNika showing me how to make labels.

We moved the box safely into place and sent Nika a photo. She replied and said that it looked great. BUT we had put it in with the wrong side facing out. Woops. We took it out and put it back with the correct side facing forward. That whole process took us a day and a half. I would never have thought before I begun this internship that something so seemingly simple could involve so much planning, time and effort.

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Since then I have been working primarily on the Patrick McGuire exhibition and preparing to conduct interviews on the Great Box.

Nika showed me how we she likes to organize her work and I follow a similar guideline. I have an inventory of pieces that has a picture, the name of the Museum or collector, dimensions and how it could be shipped. This document also helps me to visualize the space where the exhibit will be and keep track of how many more pieces I need, how they go together, any potential themes. It is always open on my computer when I am at the Museum. I have also taken to imagining how the exhibit could look. The office I am in faces the space where the exhibit will be so I often turn around and imagine looking at it through the window. I have even tried my hand at doodling where things could be- I must admit I am not an artist.

My Dad, Michael McGuire, came to Haida Gwaii for some meetings just in time to be interviewed about his brother Patrick. I’ve done interviews before as a contractor for the Haida Gwaii Museum. However, interviewing your parent is a little bit more difficult. I tried my hardest not to call him Dad but it slipped out continuously. You just don’t call your parents by their first names. His interview provided me with so much information about Patrick’s life, his love of art, his true talent and who he was as person. I wished I had asked these questions earlier. In talking about his brother my Dad got choked up. I have rarely seen my Dad get emotional. I am very grateful that he was willing to be interviewed and to share information about his and Pat’s life so that in twenty years someone will be able to listen to that interview and learn about Patrick.

I see things starting to come together now. Pieces have arrived. I went to go pick one up yesterday and I was thrilled to photograph it and put it in its temporary storage place. Today my brother Pat’s argillite collection came in, I was so happy to hold those pieces in my hands. I cannot wait for more to arrive.

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It’s becoming real. My dreams are coming true and I’m just wondering how this all happened.

Blog written by Michaela McGuire, Intern Curator, Project Officer at GNC & occasional photographer