Captain Cook’s Nuu-chah-nulth club returns to BC

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[image from The Globe and Mail]
Recently, Canadian art collector and philanthropist Michael Audain acquired a carved Nuu-chah-nulth club that Captain Cook had collected at Friendly Cove on Nootka Sound, British Columbia on his Third Voyage in 1778. In March, Audain donated the rare object to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology in a televised ceremony. This was the last known piece from Cook’s collection to have been in private hands (the Globe and Mail reported it to be worth around $1.2 Million). Global News, the Vancouver Sun, CBC radio, and CBC TV news coverage all celebrated the club’s “repatriation” to Canada, noting that now the club was “back home” (at least, back in the now-Province and Nation from which it originated if not quite the First Nation). Both Audain and Donald Ellis, the Toronto and New York-based dealer who arranged the sale, expressed a long-standing interest in securing for Canada a piece of the historic Cook collection. In the CBC radio interview, Anthony Shelton, director of the UBC Museum of Anthropology, highlighted the capacity for objects like this–most likely acquired by Cook as a gift or in trade–to circulate globally and forge connections across disparate peoples and cultures. As the Mowachaht-Muchalaht Council of Elders declared in 1997:

Many of the early visitors were anxious to take home our gifts as souvenirs of their time among us. As part of our diplomacy, we presented carved images of our great ancestors to representatives of European governments visiting our territory. These ancestors are now living in your great treasure houses, which you call museums. They are our representatives in your cities and capitols. They are your acknowledgement of our diplomacy and the greatness of our nation. They are our boundary markers showing the extent of our influence throughout the world [from UBC MOA’s website]

Terms used to describe the club in the press:
– “An elegantly carved, yew wood club…both a work of art and a historical relic.” [Mark Hume, The Globe and Mail]
– “Misattributed in some historical documents as a ‘curious war instrument’ from the ‘Sandwich Isles’ (Hawaii).” [UBC MOA press release]
– “It is the singular most important object I have handled in my 35-year career.” [Donald Ellis]
– “I was shown a provenance which goes back through 11 owners, all the way back to Elizabeth Cook, the widow of James Cook … so there’s no question that it’s authentic. We know exactly who’s owned it for all that time.” [Michael Audain]
– “An envoy or ambassador for the Nuu-chah-nulth people themselves” and “An extraordinary, exceptional object with a tremendous amount of power and presence.” [Anthony Shelton, director of UBC Museum of Anthropology]
– “It is not an object, it is a reflection of a people’s history, and the spirit of our people moves through there. If you look at that hand, it’s like the hands of our ancestors are connected.” [Deborah Sparrow, Musqueam First Nation]
– “For a lot of us that live in the community these aren’t just objects. These were used by our people. It’s a connection to them.” [Margarita James, a representative of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht people, the descendants of those with whom Cook met and traded]
hawilmis, or “chiefly treasure” [in the language of the Nuu-chah-nulth]
See also the UBC Museum of Anthropology blog for more coverage.

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