The Nisga’a museum sits in Laxgalts’ap, waiting to showcase the priceless artifacts it holds.
It’s called Hli Goothl Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a, meaning “The Heart of Nisga’a House Crests,” and was built to house repatriated artifacts.
More than 300 Nisga’a artifacts, consisting of masks, headdresses, bentwood boxes, rattles, and soulcatchers, were returned to the Nisga’a from the Royal BC Museum and the federal Museum of Civilization last September. Most have been stored away and haven’t been seen in public for almost a century.
And now, for the first time, these Nisga’a treasures will be displayed in their place of origin.
The museum, estimated to cost $14 million, has a mini-theatre room, boardroom, offices, and workshop.
In the centre of it all stands a specially-made Nisga’a treasure box, which will house most of the repatriated artifacts. It has been built as a Class A museum space, which means it’ll maintain a certain level of museum specifications and have state of the art security.
A 15-foot raven’s head carved out of cedar and wooden feathers adorn the front of the treasure box, mimicking one of the houses of an old village near Laxgalts’ap.
One side of the cedar treasure box consists of a wall of two-sided glass cases for objects such as rattles that have carvings all around.
Most of the artifacts will be out in the open and not behind glass, secured by motion sensors but allowing the public access.
Workers have been painstakingly taking each artifact out of their cases and laying them out on panels or delegating to specific pedestals so each can tell their own story.
But the first thing the public will see when they walk into the treasure box will be 20 life-sized mannequins dressed in costume regalia to highlight the returned masks.
A lot of work has been done to make sure the masks are displayed the right way.
“There’s a history and a story that goes with each individual mask,” said museum consultant Kevin Neary, who has been helping with the artifact installation.
“This (the mannequin) gives you a much better sense of how the mask was experienced,” he said, saying it’s more realistic than being mounted on a wall. Each mannequin is specifically tailored to the mask, and the costume regalia was made locally.
Nisga’a Lisims Government’s Fran Johnson is the manager of the Ayuukhl Nisga’a department that protects, preserves, and promotes Nisga’a language, culture, and history. She first came in contact with the artifacts while doing an internship at the Royal BC Museum. Back then, she’d hoped to be part of putting the museum together, but didn’t think she’d have the chance.
“Working with these artifacts, it’s a very spiritual thing for me,” Johnson said.
Some of the repatriated artifacts belonged to her great-great-grandfather James Percival, known as Ksydiyawaak. One of the mannequins will depict Percival dressed with a headpiece, rattle, and bentwood box at his feet.
“It’s overwhelming, and it’s very emotional,” Johnson said.
Neary has organized many exhibits at the Royal BC Museum, but says it hasn’t ever been anything like this.
“It’s very, very different,” he said. “To have them come home to where they came from is very special.”
After years of planning and preparation, the Nisga’a will open the doors in a ceremony May 11.
The museum opening coincides with the 11th anniversary of the Nisga’a Treaty.
The welcome begins at noon, and events are open to the public.