Conservation of the Thunderbird Park poles

Thunderbird Park was established in 1941. In 1952, the Royal BC Museum initiated a pole restoration program, welcoming Kwakwaka‘wakw Chief Mungo Martin as Thunderbird Park’s Head Carver. The anti-potlatch law had been lifted in 1951, and the tradition of carving was coming back to life, with artists like Martin studying and replicating old poles.

Some of the poles carved by Martin (and his protégés, all of whom were significant carvers) have been exposed to the elements for nearly seventy years. Many of these older poles now require extensive conservation work.

In spring 2019, Royal BC Museum staff and contractors completed seismic, engineering and conservation reports on the Thunderbird Park poles. Some of the metal braces holding up the poles had rusted. Attachments to appendages (like wings and beaks) were strained. Some poles, saturated with water, were rotting from the inside out.

As we learned this information, the Royal BC Museum consulted with the First Nations communities affected: the Kwakwaka’wakw community, to which Mungo Martin belonged; the nations that inspired his replica poles; and the local Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, on whose traditional territories the museum sits today.

With these communities the Royal BC Museum discussed which poles could bear conservation, which had reached the end of their lifespans, and what the most appropriate protocol might be to lay these poles down to rest. The museum worked with each community to understand the most appropriate path forward for each pole, in the spirit of consultation and repatriation.

The museum and First Nations communities agreed that the Quatsino house post replica (pole 20120) carved in 1954 and a Haida mortuary pole replica (pole 20131) carved in 1955—both by Martin, assisted by his son David Martin and Henry Hunt—had reached the end of their lifespans. The Quatsino house post was taken down on May 31, 2019 and the mortuary pole on June 5, 2019. You can see photos and video of the ceremonies to mark the poles’ return to the earth here.

The next stage of work began in late 2019: replacing the “strong backs”—the steel support beams attached to the back side of many of the remaining poles in the park. Conservation work has also begun on six pole appendages—in almost all cases, the wings or beaks of figures.

In December 2019, carvers Mervyn Child, Tom Child and Chief David Knox (Mungo Martin's great-grandson) met with museum staff to discuss how to begin conservation work on the Kwakwaka’wakw heraldic pole (pole 20122), carved by Mungo Martin, David Martin and Mildred Hunt in 1953, that stood in front of Wawadiťła.


In January 2020, Mervyn Child and David Knox began this conservation work on the pole. The pole was laid down for easier access as they cleared off biological growth like moss, algae and lichen. David and Mervyn removed damaged areas, including the beak of the top thunderbird figure and attached newly carved repairs made of cedar.  The pole will be repainted, which will integrate and protect the newly repaired areas.

As the outdoor poles retain a lot of moisture over the wet winter months, it was apparent that the pole would need time to dry out as much as possible before re-painting could commence. On January 28, 2020, we moved the pole inside the museum to Clifford Carl Hall, a much drier environment. Conservation staff are gently vacuuming detritus from its surface and monitoring the pole for any insects. 

We anticipate moving the pole back outdoors in late February or early March of 2020.

In the meantime, conservation staff and contractors continue to inspect and conserve the other poles in Thunderbird Park: for example, removing moss (which holds moisture against the wood and promotes degradation) from another Kwakwaka’wakw totem pole. In spring 2020, two Gitxsan replica poles (poles 20123 and 20124) that stand near Douglas Street will be temporarily laid down so staff can upgrade their strong backs and supports. 

The Royal BC Museum thanks the communities for their wisdom and guidance during this process.