British Columbia

Saving a fading icon, Centennial Totem Pole slated for renewal

'It's a really important artwork and it's an amazing document of British Columbian history that needs to be saved," says Bill McLennan of UBC's anthropology department.

'It can’t reach the point where it comes down in a windstorm and can’t be put back together'

The iconic Vancouver totem was first erected in 1958. (Ruth Hatnup/Flickr)

Hewn from red cedar, Mungo Martin's iconic Centennial Totem Pole had been telling history to the sky since 1958, but weather, insects and time are taking their toll.

"This amazing piece of art has a longer history than when the weather decides that's the end of it," said Bill McLennan of UBC's anthropology department.

The 30.5-metre (or 100-foot) pole stands in Hadden park, south of the Maritime Museum in Vancouver. Its twin stands in Windsor Great Park in London, a gift to the royal family in Britain.

Weather and insects are taking their toll on Martin Mungo's seminal work. (Ruth Hatanup/Flickr)

It was the work of Kwakwaka'wakw carver Mungo Martin who helped to revive the art of totem carving on Canada's West Coast, according to McLennan.

It's a foot-high for every year of colonial history and features 10 figures, each one for a different tribe, said McLennan.

"He took one piece of history from each of those tribes so you have an amazing document of history," he said.

"Mungo Martin was the last person on the West Coast that had been trained as a young man to be a traditional carver for all the Potlatch regalia and totem poles and everything that went with it," said McLennan.

Mungo Martin revived totem carving on the west coast. (Royal B.C. Museum)

Martin gave up carving and became a fisherman because of the Potlatch Ban, which restricted the elaborate ceremonial feasts held by First Nations people on the Pacific coast — and sometimes led to the arrests of people who defied the ban or the seizure of artifacts, McLennan said.

 After the ban ended in 1952, Martin and others were asked to help restore some works and began carving again.

 By then he was in his 70s and was asked to restore some of the work he had done as a young man.

"He really revived the totem pole carving tradition," said McLennan.

While there are totems standing in Haida Gwaii believed to be 100 to 150 years old, experts feel it's important to keep Martin's work bright and crisp as he would have liked it.

The City of Vancouver is reviewing the future of the totem located south of the Maritime Museum in Kitsilano. (City of Vancouver)

"It should look as good as when Mungo finished it, because that's the presence and the power that he was presenting on behalf of the Kwakwaka'wakw people," he said.

The pole was temporarily stabilized to stop bending in 2014 while Martin's descendants and experts were consulted. Restoration is expected to take several more years, as the best ways to preserve and protect the iconic art piece are explored.

Wind, rain and fungus wreak havoc on cedar totems over time. (Ruth Hatnup/Flickr)