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Customs and Conservation: Totem Poles

February 18th, 2013

Customs and Conservation:  Totem Poles

Alyssa Reisner

            Western cultural ideals seem to favor the preservation and maintenance of material culture, yet other cultures may favor the natural decay or intentional destruction of certain types of cultural material as influenced by their own customs and traditions. Other aspects of material culture may not be able to be properly represented in a museum, as their significance seems to come from not only being preserved, but from being in a certain location. Some types of totem poles exemplify this positional significance. Totem poles are sculptures carved from trees, often by the people of indigenous North American cultures. There are different types of totem poles, each having their own significance. Some of these poles include house frontal poles, house portal poles, memorial poles, mortuary poles, and shame poles (Stewart 1993).  Though preserving totem poles in museums certainly seems beneficial as it allows future generations to view and learn about important aspects of other cultures, there is a question of whether it can be considered worth the loss of the significance held by the actual location and intended use of the original totem pole.

            One example of this sort of complication can be shown through the shame pole. The shame pole “was carved for a chief who wished to ridicule or shame another—often his rival” (Stewart 1993:25).  The pole stood to bring attention to some long-standing unpaid debt or misdeed that was thought to be worthy of ridicule or scorn, and when restitution was made, the pole would be taken down (Stewart 1993). These poles are now thought to “exist only in museums” (Stewart 1993:25).  Shame poles were not meant to stand forever, as they were taken down once the conflict was settled; so, is the preservation of a pole meant for this purpose necessarily ethical?

            There seemingly are at least two different ways to answer such a question. No one solution appears to be necessarily better than another, but all viewpoints should be considered. It is important for future generations of other cultures to learn about this type of totem pole, and from this point of view, the preservation of shame poles seems to be beneficial and significant. Though, if the culture that initially created the shame pole does not think that it should still be standing, it could be more beneficial not to preserve the pole. It is always possible, however, that future generations of the culture that created the totem pole could want the shame poles to be preserved in order to have a link to their heritage. The preservation of objects that were not initially meant to be saved or maintained is a complex subject that requires extra consideration. If the totem poles are preserved in a setting such as a museum, the public, perhaps along with the people of the culture in question, are due additional explanation. 


Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993.

General Conservation

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