MOA is deeply saddened by the passing of Gloria Cranmer Webster last week, at age 91. We honour this remarkable ’Namgis (Kwakwaka’wakw) woman whose ties to the Museum of Anthropology date back to the 1960s. The legacy of her repatriation and heritage preservation work has guided MOA’s practices in the ensuing decades and has forever shifted the cultural landscape in BC.
“What a force she was,” recalls Karen Duffek, MOA Curator, Contemporary Visual Arts + Pacific Northwest, “in the museum world and in the wider community. She was a woman with an extraordinary vision, and it was a privilege to have known her: especially to have sat around her kitchen table in Alert Bay, drinking her strong coffee and enjoying her often wry observations and humour.”
Born in Alert Bay, Gloria was the first Indigenous woman to attend the University of British Columbia, where she graduated with an anthropology degree in 1956. In 1971 she was hired as an assistant curator at MOA, when the museum was still located in the basement of the UBC Main Library. It was at MOA that she learned of the 1921 potlatch hosted by her father, Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief Dan Cranmer, that was raided by federal and provincial authorities. The seized masks, rattles, regalia, and other family heirlooms were divided up and shipped east to various museums.
Gloria became a passionate advocate for the return of these treasures, which became known as the Potlatch Collection. Along with other Kwakwaka’wakw leaders and community members, she prevailed in repatriating most of the collection. She went on to help establish the U’mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay in 1980, one of two permanent homes for the repatriated belongings (the other is the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge, which opened in 1979). Gloria served as U’mista’s director and curator for many years.
Over the decades and through her work at U’mista, Gloria continued to contribute her scholarship and leadership to MOA. She collaborated on research and curatorial projects with MOA staff, offered public lectures and hosted community visits at the Museum. Most recently, and with her signature wit, she reflected on some historical belongings in MOA’s collection for the book Where the Power Is: Indigenous Perspectives on Northwest Coast Art (2021):
I was talking about our years working at MOA in the early 1970s, when it was still in the basement of the UBC library. Once when anthropologist Wilson Duff came in, I was trying to get a letter off before the end of the day, and he of course was trailed by adoring students. He brought out a raven rattle. I’m busy typing away, and he says, “Look at this. Isn’t it beautiful?” Impatiently I said, “Yes!” and went back to my typing. And he said, “But how do you read it?” I said, “Wilson, I don’t read those things, I shake them!” Yeah.
Gloria’s energy and voice have helped to form the foundation of MOA’s work with First Nations communities and heritage, and she will be missed by all here.