James Hepburn at Metlakatla

Museum Speaker Series – Science & Scandal – The Collecting Activities of James Hepburn at Metlakatla on Sunday, October 20, 2019, attracted many people.

Researcher Lydia Fisher’s illustrated presentation introduced the naturalist/antiquary James Hepburn and his role in procuring important cultural patrimony belonging to the Tsimshian people at Metlakatla.

Where did these masks, clappers, soul catchers and items of personal adornment, collected in the 1860s, end up?

The 1860s were a fascinating time of change on the Northwest Coast. The James Hepburn Collection is likely one of the earliest to come out of Metlakatla. It places Hepburn’s collecting at an intersection of cultural change and reveals the complex relationships that existed between First Nations, missionaries, collectors, navy and Hudson’s Bay Company administrators.

James Hepburn arrived at Fort Simpson and Metlakatla within a week or two of the smallpox epidemics of 1862 that had ravaged many coastal villages since May 1862. Fort Simpson was reported to have lost between 500 and 700 Tsimshian. It was at this point of the voyage that Hepburn would have encountered the lay preacher William Duncan from the Church Missionary Society. Duncan was relatively new on the scene having arrived at the fort in 1857. It is interesting to know that Duncan, with the support of Tsimshian Chief Legaic, vaccinated and relocated about two or three hundred Tsimshian to the old village site of Metlakatla.  However, 90 percent of the aboriginal population was lost due to the epidemics.

The winking mask from Fort Simpson is one of the highlights of the collection. Hepburn’s collection was one of the founding collections at the MAA (Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology) and was the first from the Northwest Coast.

The reverse of the mask has a crossbar for the wearer to grip in their teeth and there are several leather thongs and a lever attached to leather lines to operate the rolling eyes (MAA catalogue 2017)


Thank you, Lydia, for this fascinated talk!

Museum at Cambridge
The Winking Mask



Lydia Fisher’s talk.
Lydia Fisher’s talk.