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British Museum opens first exhibition focusing on the Pacific Northwest Coast
Rattle in shape of a bird by Nuu-chah-nulth artist Patrick Amos, 1980s. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America explores the rich cultural heritage of Northwest Coast Peoples through a collection of evocative and powerful objects spanning thousands of years. It is the British Museum’s first exhibition focusing on the Pacific Northwest Coast and celebrates the cultural resilience of the communities in this region. With over 9,000 years of cultural, linguistic and genetic continuity, these societies have successfully maintained their identity and way of life in a rapidly changing world. The exhibition commemorates the tradition of the Thunderbird, a legendary ancestral being who symbolises great strength in Northwest culture and art. On display will also be striking masks depicting ancestral stories and intricate form-line narrations of histories and lineages, demonstrating how people both today and in the past enshrine their conceptions of the world within objects that create their material heritage.

Northwest Coast Peoples have one of the longest continuous cultural traditions in the Americas. Revealing the connections between their dynamic history and lived reality, the exhibition will bring into dialogue the past, present and the future of Northwest Coast Peoples. The displayed objects are arranged chronologically and geographically, taking the visitor on a journey through the artistic expressions that embody their longstanding values and beliefs. One side of the exhibition will display themes of strength showcasing 2,500 year old stone tools and early historic weapons. The other side will feature contemporary art and regalia from the Northwest Coast collections as testament to the innovative practices and economic adaptation of these thriving communities following the arrival of Europeans in the 18th Century.

The vibrant culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast is underpinned by power, environment, kinship and interaction. Displayed in the middle of the exhibition will be treasured objects that immortalise these shared core values, including the precious and honoured Potlatch objects. Copper shield shaped sculptures are gifted during an opulent and elaborate ceremonial feast, which are held by powerful chiefs to reaffirm social status and denote the wealth of the hosting family. Where the Thunderbird Lives reveals the stories and histories behind these works of art that have united generations and provided stability in the face of great change.

The mountainous fjords, lush islands and temperate forests that stretch along the coastline from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State are home to the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Kwakwaka’wakw, Coast Salish Peoples, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Makah among many others. These peoples have created some of the most extraordinary carving and weaving traditions in the world and many of these are displayed for the first time in the British Museum’s history.

The survival and continued practice of these powerfully beautiful forms of artistic expression have become iconic of Northwest Coast culture. Where the Thunderbird Lives invites visitors to consider their own identity and cultural resilience during a time of global change. The exhibition also speaks to the wealth of objects displayed at the British Museum, like that of Totem Poles in the Great Court, and will showcase some of the wonderful North American collections.

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