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A Look Back to the Beginning: Seventy Years of MOA in the Making

Harry Hawthorn speaking at the opening of the Museum in the basement of UBC’s library, March 5, 1949. UBC Archives: UBC 3.1/926-2. Photographer unrecorded.

2019 marks a milestone at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC as we celebrate 70 years of making our collections available to the public. In 1947, Dr. Harry B. Hawthorn was appointed the first professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Soon thereafter, anthropologist Audrey Hawthorn, Harry’s wife, was asked to take an honourary position to curate a collection of objects stored in a small room on the main floor of UBC’s library, now the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. This collection was the Burnett Collection and the beginning of the Museum of Anthropology. It consisted of 850 objects collected by Frank Burnett, a Scottish sailor, pilot commissioner and business agent who made numerous trips to the South Pacific and other parts of the world. The collection was donated to UBC in 1927 and considered up until that point as“ethnographic specimens.” When MOA was established in 1947, Harry Hawthorn was appointed as the first Director.

With an annual operating budget of $250, Audrey set out to transform the collection into a teaching museum to advance the field of anthropology at UBC. It quickly became clear that the space the collection was housed in was inadequate. A larger space one floor down was secured and, under Audrey’s direction, the Museum’s collections were moved from the room on the first floor to the basement. A document in the MOA Archives reveals that it only cost $6,762.50 to retrofit the basement space, a very small fraction of what such an undertaking would cost today. The move resulted in better access and storage for the founding collections, along with space for new exhibitions and a classroom. On March 5, 1949, the Museum of Anthropology officially opened to the public.

Audrey Hawthorn and Kwakwaka’wakw knowledge holder and weaver, Abaya’a Martin, working together at the Museum, 1952. UBC Archives: UBC 1.1/9771-1. Photographer unrecorded.

Under Audrey’s guidance, the Museum’s collection continued to expand, and by the late 1960s, it had outgrown its space in the library basement. An opportunity to showcase MOA’s Northwest Coast collection in Montreal from 1969 to 1970, in a space built for Expo ’67 a few years earlier, led to a large 2,000-object, well-received exhibition that gave the Hawthorns the attention and leverage they needed to secure funding for a new museum building at the UBC campus. After extensive planning, construction was started in 1973 and the new museum opened in 1976 in the world-renowned Arthur Erickson-designed building where it continues to operate to this day.

Not only did the new dedicated building provide more space to display the collections, it also allowed MOA to continue and expand on the educational work and commitment to experimentation that had been at the core of its creation. MOA was, and continues to be, an active teaching museum that involves students in its operations and activities. Being an institution that could “serve both scholarly purposes and the needs of contemporary people” while working to develop meaningful collaborative practices with local Indigenous peoples was a guiding principle in MOA’s growth. MOA is located on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam people. Through close working relationships, Indigenous artists and other community members have shaped MOA’s history: from Mungo Martin to Bill Reid to Lyle Wilson to Susan Point, this tradition continues into the present day. Cultivating strong, long-term relationships with generous donors that have gifted MOA with art and funds to improve our galleries and public spaces has also made MOA what it is today. As we look forward to renovated spaces and innovative new initiatives, it is important to look back and consider the long, winding path of the past 70-plus years—and to envision new possibilities for the future.

To learn more about the history of the Museum, visit the Harry and Audrey Hawthorn Library + Archives at MOA.

Burnett Collection in 1929, before it became the founding collection at MOA. UBC Archives: UBC 1.1/1255. Photo by Frank Leonard.
Display cases at MOA in its original location at UBC Library, 1961. MOA Archives: a040875. Photographer unrecorded.
Japanese Culture and Art exhibition in MOA’s original location at UBC Library, 1959. MOA Archives: a040807. Photographer unrecorded.


Sources: MOA Archives. Various documents from the Directors and Audrey Hawthorn fonds; Hawthorn, Audrey. 1974. Report of the Museum of Anthropology from 1947-1974. Vancouver: Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology; Hawthorn, Audrey. 1976. “UBC’s New Museum of Anthropology.” Canadian Geographical Journal. 93(2): p. 52-57; Hawthorn, Audrey. 1993. A Labour of Love: The Making of the Museum of Anthropology, UBC The First Three Decades 1947-1976. Vancouver: Museum of Anthropology at UBC.