Intricately woven baskets are the focus of the current exhibit at Surrey Museum, but hats, chairs and clothing made of cedar strips are also displayed. In one example of centuries-old tradition meeting modern innovation, one garment on view was crafted complete with a cellphone holder.
The "Baskets for Barter" exhibit, created in-house by museum staff with the help of several partners in the region, opened nearly two months ago in the museum's main gallery space, dimly lit at the moment.
"In order to borrow and display some of these baskets, we had to keep what's called the lux level (of lighting) way down low," said Rob McCullough, manager of the museum, while giving the Now a tour of the exhibit.
"The low lighting in here does make it somewhat difficult for people to read the panels sometimes, but we've got white text on panels to make it easier to read the words. We're actually still working on that, to make the size of the text a bit larger."
The oldest piece in the exhibit is a fragment of woven basket thought to be close to 3,500 years old.
"Some of these things couldn't be displayed in just any hall or wherever, because the temperature and lighting needs to be just right," said Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele. "We're lucky to have a place like this museum, which is equipped with all those important things, the technology."
At its heart, the exhibit honours the tradition of Coast Salish basket weaving and exchange along the lower Fraser River.
Cedar bark has long been used by Aboriginal people to create woven baskets for food preparation, storage, ceremony and currency. Later, settlers in this region collected such baskets, often seen as objects of fine art.
"It's such intricate work," Steele said, "and the history of it all is amazing to me. It's pretty phenomenal that all this is created from just tree bark, and it's amazing that these things have lasted for such a long time."
The exhibit features baskets from the museum's own collection alongside historic and contemporary examples from the Musqueam band, the Museum of Anthropology, Royal BC Museum, New Westminster Museum and Archives and local private collections.
"This basket weaving is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, but it's still alive today, too," McCullough said. "There are people in the Musqueam community who still weave these baskets, and we interviewed six or seven of them for video footage as part of this exhibit."
For McCullough, the exhibit was a fulfilling one to create, because of the connections made with different communities to make it all happen.
Once the exhibit moves out of Surrey Museum on Dec. 22, there are plans to share it with other venues in Metro Vancouver.
"We'd love to see it shared," McCullough added, "and there are probably two other locations it will go on to after this, including New Westminster Museum and Archives. I've also asked the Musqueam people if they're interested in displaying it on the reserve, and they're showing interest in that. We'll have to work out some details. They would love to see this tradition and these stories remain in the community for the youth to learn from, and having it on display there would help with that."
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Looking ahead, four feature exhibits are planned at Surrey Museum in 2013. In January, "The Vikings," a touring showcase from the Manitoba Museum, is on view. Starting in April, modern fashion trends are explored with the help of students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. A "Birds of Prey" exhibit, on loan from Royal BC Museum, will be shown next summer, followed by "Wind Work-Wind Play," from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.