December 03, 2008

Thoughts on a recent Burke Museum commission

As Washington state's museum of natural history and culture, the Burke Museum works with numerous cultural communities. Our museum staff works very hard to respect the perspectives, traditions, and desires of all community groups with which we collaborate.

We recently posted about a trip to the Museum of Glass to watch Tlingit artist Preston Singletary create an original work of glass art for the Burke's ethnology collection. A few years ago, while at the special opening of Fusing Traditions: Transformations in Glass by Native American Artists, Preston created a small glass killer whale while working in front of the museum entrance, near a replica of the Haida "Howkan Whale Monument." This year, when the Burke commissioned Preston to create a glass piece for the museum’s collection, he chose to create a killer whale. Recognizing and understanding the distinctions between Haida and Tlingit culture, the Burke never viewed the commission as a recreation of the Howkan Whale Monument, but as a celebration of Preston’s body of work, which often includes imagery of killer whales. The following is a statement from the Burke Museum and the Museum of Glass about the commission.
Joint Position Statement: Burke Museum and Museum of Glass

The Burke Museum and the Museum of Glass respect Native peoples and acknowledge their cultural perspective. The Burke Museum acquired the dorsal fin of the Howkan Whale Monument known as “Single Fin” in 1953 (cat. no. 1-1682), purchased as part of the Walter Waters collection. Moses Koohl-keet commissioned this monumental whale sculpture from Haida carver John Wallace around 1880 as a memorial to his uncle, head of the Brown Bear House, a branch of the Quetas Ravens. Curator Bill Holm began carving a replica of the monument (cat. no. 1988-75/1) in the 1970s, and completed it in 1985, when it was installed in front of the Museum during the Museum’s centennial year. On that occasion, several elders and members of the Hydaburg community, who trace their ancestry to Moses Koohl-keet, attended the centennial ceremony when the replica whale was unveiled, and they were acknowledged as the hereditary owners of this clan symbol.

In 2005 the Burke Museum hosted the traveling exhibit, “Fusing Traditions: Transformations in Glass by Native American Artists.” Preston Singletary and several other artists demonstrated glassblowing techniques using a mobile hot shop. At that time, Singletary created a small killer whale sculpture in glass, while working outdoors in front of the Howkan whale replica. In 2006, the Museum contacted Mr. Singletary, hoping to acquire that glass whale for an exhibit being planned featuring its contemporary Northwest Coast art collection. Since it was never completed and had been destroyed by Singletary, they discussed the possibility of acquiring another glass sculpture from him.

The Burke Museum is looking forward to acquiring an original work of glass art by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary, who has been commissioned by a generous donor to create a piece that will be donated to the Museum upon its completion. The work will be made during Preston Singletary’s Visiting Artist Residency in the Museum of Glass Hot Shop on November 22 and 23, 2008.

An invitation to watch the creation of this new work of art included a killer whale design created by Bill Holm in 1986 that was inspired by the Howkan whale sculpture, and has been used as the logo of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum. This invitation said that the artist will interpret the monumental Howkan whale in glass. More accurately, the commission itself was inspired by Singletary’s body of work, which includes imagery of killer whales. The intentions of the donor who has commissioned the work, the Burke Museum who hopes to receive the work, and Preston Singletary who will create the work, were not to replicate the Howkan whale monument in any way. Singletary is Kagwaantan Tlingit, and the killer whale and brown bear are his family crest symbols. The artist will complete the commission with an original killer whale in glass.