Focus

By: 
Greg Forrest Gallery Animator

Birch Bark Box

This charming birch bark box was made in the Atlantic region sometime in the 19th century. The anonymous maker’s name is lost to history. We can say that it was probably made by a Mi’kmaq woman based on the design of the box and the known history of Indigenous trade crafts in this region. From the time of early contact onwards, European settlers and tourists traded for and bought Indigenous crafts in Atlantic Canada. A cottage industry arose to satisfy this market. Most commonly known are the birch bark boxes and objects decorated with dyed porcupine quills in geometric patterns. This particular box is humbler in terms of labour and materials but nonetheless beautiful. It has the rich patina of an old penny on its surfaces and a lighter hue where the geometric and curvilinear designs have been incised into the bark with a knife.

A functional object like this, presented in an art gallery raises questions about art and craft. What are the differences and similarities? Are there boundaries and where are they? Would this box be viewed differently in different settings such as a historically focused museum? Does its functionality make it somehow lesser than a purely aesthetic object? These are not simple questions with simple answers. Different cultures have different ideas about these issues. Some do not even have distinct words for art. Art and craft are indistinguishable in some cultures. Near this box in the Gallery is a work by Jordan Bennett who shares Mi’kmaq identity and heritage with the anonymous box maker. Bennett has produced work that is in dialogue with Mi’kmaq artifacts he has found in museum collections. He enters into a collaborative partnership with these makers to produce something novel and nuanced that brings these issues of art and craft to our attention.

Birch trees are found throughout the northern hemisphere. Its pliant bark has been utilized by Indigenous peoples wherever it is found, from Scandinavia to North America. Birch bark has been compared to plastic in that it is ubiquitous and used to make everything. It is actually more like a tough, flexible, water-proof cardboard that eventually decomposes. The bark is stripped off living or felled trees and shaped into canoes, shelters, containers and more.

As it ages, the birch bark becomes more brittle and fragile. The fact that this box has survived is a testament to the care it has been shown over a long time. In the gallery, the box is displayed in a glass vitrine to protect it from curious hands and their harmful oils. One touch does little harm but ten thousand can be devastating. The box is displayed at a noticeably dimmer light level than other works in the gallery. This is an old object made of organic material. Light, over long periods of time will damage it just like sun bleaching. The light level is dimmer than most would prefer but it ensures we can still view the art and minimize cumulative damage. All these actions and considerations are made by the many people working in concert to present this birch box. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Collections, Conservation, Curatorial and Preparation departments each play a key role. Designers and photographers amongst others have made the Gallery's collection electronically shareable.

It’s worth mentioning that this birch bark box was donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Donations are a vital means by which the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia builds its collection. The generosity of donors ensures that their gifts are preserved and shared with future generations. The donor in this case, Dianne O’Neill, is the recently retired Associate Curator of Historical Prints & Drawings who (like this birch bark box) is irreplaceable.

Image Credit: 

Unknown
Incised Birch Bark Box   ca. 19th c.
Birch bark, sinew and wood
19.5 x 25.0 x 25.5 cm
Gift of Dianne O'Neill, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2017. 2017.92