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May 05, 2002

Burke Receives de Menil Collection

Seattle - The Burke Museum is pleased to announce the receipt of a major photographic collection, donated by photographer Adelaide de Menil, which documents the culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast like no other work since that of Edward S. Curtis.

Haida Ancestral Figure
Prince of Wales Island, AK
(Photo by A. de Menil)

The 20,000 de Menil images, captured between 1966 and 1968, document in haunting clarity a monumental sculptural tradition on the brink of extinction. de Menil visited Northwest Coast villages from Western Washington to Southeast Alaska, photographing weathered totem poles, cemeteries, and village sites. Many of her images, together with poetic text written by Haida artist Bill Reid, were published in the important book Out of the Silence, and helped to illustrate a pivotal moment in Northwest Coast cultural history.

At the time that de Menil and Reid were working on Out of the Silence, Northwest Coast culture indeed appeared silent to outsiders. No new poles had been raised for decades, and few people still alive remembered or practiced the traditions that gave the poles their meaning.

"After the government made potlatching illegal in Canada in the late 19th century, totem poles were no longer raised. Many were sold to museums and collectors, but many were left to decay naturally in their original sites, in the traditional way that these cultures always allowed graves and old poles to decay," said Dr. Robin Wright, Burke Museum Curator of Native American Art.

Since Out of the Silence was published, many of the monuments that de Menil photographed have fallen and been destroyed by the elements.

"At nearly a hundred villages and cemeteries on the Northwest Coast, some of the greatest sculptures in the world were on the verge of disappearing," said Dr. George MacDonald, Burke Museum Director. "It is with the recognition of the scale of this loss that the value of [de Menil's] archive of 20,000 photographs is fully realized. The importance of the collection lies in its outstanding record of the last vestiges of a monumental sculptural tradition that had, for the most part, died out."

Haida Beaver Memorial Pole
Old Kasaan Village, AK
(Photo by A. de Menil)

Fifty years have now passed since the anti-potlatching law was dropped in Canada, and even as de Menil and Reid visited the villages of the Northwest Coast, Reid and a number of other young Native artists were launching a movement to revitalize the pole carving tradition.

Today, the silence that de Menil and Reid encountered has clearly been shattered- Native arts are flourishing; poles are being raised up and down the Northwest Coast; and new generations of artists have emerged. de Menil's photographs have become valuable documents of lost poles used as models by contemporary carvers, and are in some cases the last surviving examples of the unique carving style of their ancestors.

"Not since Edward S. Curtis have the issues of composition, cultural content, and final print quality of Northwest Coast photographs been addressed on this scale," said Dr. MacDonald.

On October 3, 2002, the Burke will launch a full-scale retrospective exhibition based on the photographs of de Menil and rarely seen monumental Northwest Coast sculptures from the Burke collection. Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of the Totem Pole will be augmented by a wealth of public programs, including film and lecture series, family activities, performances, workshops, seminars, and artist residencies. A specially developed exhibit web site will become a permanent component of burkemuseum.org, and will make the de Menil photographic collection accessible to students and aficionados worldwide.

"The gift to the Burke Museum of the Adelaide de Menil collection is a clear indication of the high regard in which the museum is held by scholars of Northwest Coast art history. It acknowledges as well the uniqueness of the archive of images of masterworks from the coast assembled over thirty years by Bill Holm and his students, including Dr. Robin K. Wright. The de Menil photos form the perfect complement to the Holm/Wright collection. Together, they constitute the greatest collection of images of Northwest Coast culture anywhere." - Dr. George Macdonald


The Burke Museum is located at the corner of NE 45th St and 17th Ave NE, on the University of Washington campus. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily and until 8 pm Thursdays. Admission is $6.50 general, $5 senior, $3 students/ youth. The Burke is free to members, children 5 and under, UW students, staff, and faculty. Admission is free to the public the first Thursday of each month. For more information and a complete calendar of events, visit www.burkemuseum.org or call 206-543-7907.Please note that there may be additional fees for special exhibits and programs

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