U’mista Cultural Centre Protects Cedar Heritage Collections: Funding from the FPCC Heritage Infrastructure Program supports the U’mista Cultural Centre to protect its vulnerable organic collections with upgraded environmental controls.
Perched on the water’s edge, U’mista Cultural Centre holds space for the community cultural collections and performances in ‘ya̱lis, also known as Alert Bay. Surrounded by rainforest, the building features a striking black-on-white design of Thunderbird atop a whale by artist Doug Cramer. In this dramatic setting on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, it rains on average 203 days a year, with sometimes as much as 300 millimetres falling each month. This high-humidity environment increases the need for environmental controls to protect the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw cultural archives and collections.
‘ A’ax̱sila (To take care of something in Kwak̓wala)
Tłaliłalas, Juanita Johnston, Director of U’mista Cultural Centre, has been with the Centre since 1989, working closely with its unique collection of masks and headdresses. When she stepped into the role of Executive Director in 2020, Tłaliłalas turned the pandemic pause into an opportunity.
“One of the things at the back of my mind for years was that our HVAC system was in sad shape,” says Tłaliłalas. She focused on raising funds to upgrade the aging infrastructure with improved environmental controls and other essential facility upgrades. Controlling temperature and humidity is essential to protect pieces made of organic materials such as cedar, wood, leather and hide.
Tłaliłilas shares an example of a headdress impacted by fluctuating temperature and humidity. “The backing of the piece was made from wood and it just gave away,” she explains. U’mista mounts its displays using specialized knowledge about how adhesives will react to their environment over time. Their old HVac system did not function correctly as it did not maintain a consistent temperature in all areas of the building or handle seasonal temperature shifts.
“The nature of our collection, is that it’s a lot of cedar bark,” says Tłaliłilas. ‘ Kadza̱kw (softened cedar bark) begins to degrade the moment work such as pounding and soaking begins. So the material is by nature highly vulnerable to deterioration. Tłaliłilas describes how this impacts management of U’mista: “The museum standard for temperature is 15–25 degrees Celsius, but ours must be set to 20–22 degrees – this means we must be able to keep it within those 3 degrees.”
This is where the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) provided support. The Heritage Infrastructure Program (HIP, formerly called the Indigenous Cultural Heritage Infrastructure Program) provides funding to First Nations communities, organizations and First Nations-led museums and cultural spaces in B.C. to support projects that conserve, repair or develop local heritage infrastructure. Funding from HIP provided the resources needed to upgrade the HVAC system for a temperature-controlled environment to maintain the most fragile pieces in the collection.
Maintaining Indigenous-led cultural spaces is really important for First Nations to have control over how their history and culture are shared. U’mista educates visitors on the history of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture, being careful to avoid placing it only in the past.
“One of the things that we stress in our tours is that it is a living culture and it’s still being practiced,” says Tłaliłilas. “We always recognize those who came before us. We wouldn’t have a cultural centre without the old people who fought so hard for the return of the collection. In order to honour them, we continue to look for and repatriate the remainder of the collection. There’s still the odd piece out there.”
The Heritage Infrastructure Program is one of the FPCC programming streams U’mista worked with to meet their vision and goals, explains Tłaliłalas. She appreciates the “well-thought-out” programming, monthly check-ins and meetings with other successful grant recipients, “so we can hear what everyone else is doing, and that inspires.” The support from the Heritage Infrastructure Program supports the safeguarding of their collections for the community and visitors for years to come.
FPCC Heritage Program funding is now accepting applications for all funding streams. Is your community interested in developing or improving heritage infrastructure? Apply now to receive up to $250,000 for heritage infrastructure projects completed by September 2023. To learn more, access the guidelines and application form and view an online information session about this program, click here: https://fpcc.ca/program/heritage-infrastructure-program/.
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Kwak̓wala words and audio clips were provided by the Kwak̓wala FirstVoices.com site.
The Heritage Infrastructure Program is a multi-year program funded through the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation (FPCF). Past contributors include the Province of BC Covid Economic Recovery Program and 150 Time Immemorial funding from Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The 2022-23 program is funded through FPCF by the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.
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