Unpacking the Museum Register

Institutional Memories of the Potlatch Collection Repatriation

in Volume 5 (2017): Issue 1 (Jul 2017)

Working largely from archival documents, this article examines the material traces of the confiscated and repatriated Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch collection that remains in the museum register. I unpack the museum register to demonstrate that, in lieu of a predetermined repatriation process, museum staff relied instead on existing administrative processes to navigate this largely uncharted territory of repatriation in the 1960s. These highly formalized processes or rituals served to reaffirm institutional identity in the face of an uncontrollable element—repatriation. Using the museum register, this article provides a historical lens through which to view the personal and institutional shifts that were necessary for this early repatriation to occur. The contemporary repatriation ceremonies performed by Kwakwaka’wakw peoples and the contemporary significance of the repatriated regalia in Alert Bay and Cape Mudge point to the ways repatriation processes and relationships have changed over time.