British Columbia

Work to conserve U'mista masks and regalia almost complete

Work to conserve the fire-damaged collection at the U'mista Cultural Centre is almost complete, but the pieces won't restored to the condition they were in before the fire.

Museum fire considered latest chapter for long history of U'mista pieces in Alert Bay, B.C.

Object conservator Lisa Bengston works on an jacket from the U'mista collection. (Royal B.C. Museum)

Work to conserve the fire-damaged collection at the U'mista Cultural Centre on northern Vancouver Island is almost complete, but the pieces are not being restored to their original condition.

Instead, the community has chosen to have the artifacts display the marks of a 2013 fire at the museum in Alert Bay, B.C.

"They are now telling another story in terms of their resilience and the resilience of the community in terms of surviving the fire," said Sarah Holland, director of the U'mista Cultural Centre. 

The U'mista Cultural Centre was damaged by a fire in 2013. (U'Mista Cultural Centre)

It's the latest chapter in a long history for the U'mista masks and regalia. 

The pieces were confiscated during the years of the potlatch ban in Canada. The Kwakwaka'wakw people fought to get them returned from collections around the world.

Dozens of items suffered smoke or water damage when someone set fire to the museum in 2013. Experts rushed to Alert Bay to help with the preservation effort.

The museum was able to reopen several months later after repairs, but work has continued to preserve the integrity of each piece in the collection.

George Field is an object conservator at the Royal B.C. Museum. He's part of the team working on the U'mista collection. (Royal B.C. Museum)

Some of the most severely damaged items were sent to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.

Object conservators like George Field are working on the project.

"We are bringing things to the best point that we could hope for without making change. The damage is just part of the long history these pieces have had," he said.

Some of the U'mista artifacts undergoing stabilization work at the Royal B.C. Museum. (Royal B.C. Museum)

All of the work on the U'mista collection is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

The Royal B.C. Museum has also created a pocket gallery that tells the story of the U'mista fire and the effort to save the collection.

The exhibit runs at the Victoria museum until the end of September.

Some of the masks at the U'mista Cultural Centre that were covered in soot by the 2013 fire. (U'mista Cultural Centre)


Megan Thomas


Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.