Sphinx

Genevieve Painter

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Image (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Object: Haida sphinx
Location:  The British Museum Room 26 (North America)

I pored through the Museum’s digital collection for an object about how colonization rested on ways of ‘seeing’ the land. I had objects in mind, like a surveyor’s chain or camera. The museum does not hold such objects, so instead I looked for traces of ‘surveying’, like paintings or photographs. I learned that little in the collection depicts White presence in 19th century Canada; any objects that do – like photographs of White men in front of totem poles – are almost without exception “Not on display.” After hours reading the words “Location: Not on display”, the mantra became a question about how British colonization is “not on display” and, inversely, how the colonial project required the “display” of land and life through technologies of measurement and representation.

The object I chose stands apart from the Museum’s “British Columbia” collection because it contains a visible trace of the White colonial project. The object is a pine carving of a sphinx, made by Simeon Silthda, a Haida man, found in a house in a deserted village in present-day Haida Gwaii. Silthda carved it based on a picture of a sphinx in an illustrated Bible, shown to him by a ‘Reverend Wm. Collison’, between 1874 and 1878. Collison, an Anglican missionary born in Ireland, was one of the first missionaries to work among the Haida in the late 1870s. The object and the description invite us to imagine Collison showing Silthda an illustrated Bible, and Silthda choosing, from among of all the illustrations, to reproduce a sphinx. The object seems to collapse space and time. It seems to connect an island off the northwest coast of North America to Europe while at the same time linking the Haida Nation to a figurative representation of European myths of origin (the Sphinx being a central motif of the Renaissance imagination of a European history rooted in the Ancient Greeks and Romans). It holds traces of the bodies through which the spatial and temporal condensing of colonialism took place: we see both the Haida carver who made the object and the Irish missionary who showed him the drawing it was based on. I want to explore how this object contains traces of colonial technologies of representation that in turn help us to understand processes of dispossession.

The museum is a technology of representation that can be scrutinized as producing the objects it displays. Like all archives, the museum filters – some objects are kept, others are left out ‘in the world’. The physical limits of the museum provoke a further filtering through decisions about what is ‘on display’. In comparing what is ‘on display’ to what is ‘not on display’, a question arises about how the agency underpinning the colonial project is erased, as what is ‘on display’ shows almost nothing of the White people who occupied the land and collected ‘objects’ for posterity. All the remaining objects are ‘things’ made by Indigenous people that are represented on the Museum’s website as ‘from’ the Haida, Nisga’a, and so on. It is only by reading the names of the collector or donor that the colonial context becomes visible – the hands that moved these objects from Haida territory through a chain of title to rest in the vaults of the British Museum. The fact that this project is restricted to objects ‘on display’ invites thinking about the ‘British’ being represented (and hidden) through the ‘British Museum’.

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