The Great Box Project
by Graham Richard

Old and new: The copy stands to the right of the old master's piece.
Photo: Pitt Rivers Museum

The partially finished copy of the Great Box will return from Oxford on Friday the 10th of October. The new box, which is being carved and painted by brothers Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, features skillful designs copied from the original masterpiece onto a new bentwood cedar box.The Edenshaws worked on the copy for 28 days straight and presented their work to local craftspeople and children at the Pitt Rivers Museum, where the original Great Box currently resides.

Jaalen and Gwaai

Brothers Jaalen and Gwaai Edenshaw begin to paint the replica box.
Photo: Pitt Rivers Museum/Michael Peckett


To achieve accuracy, the carvers followed agreed-upon protocols as they carved. They adjusted lines from the original Great Box only if very clearly damaged or irregular. “We may not understand something, even after months of working with [the Great Box],” Gwaai acknowledged. “That doesn’t mean someone else won’t be able to see or understand it. By downloading the information from the old box onto the new box, someone else can have the same opportunity we had to learn from it.”

Detail of the painting on the replica box.
Photo: Pitt Rivers Museum/Michael Peckett

As experienced carvers, Gwaai and Jaalen were happy to focus so much time on a single piece. “Usually when you get into a museum you get a couple hours or a day at most,” Jaalen observed, “and usually you’re dealing with a whole bunch of other pieces, too. You don’t really get to focus in and contemplate what the artist was doing.” With 28 days of concentrated effort, the two carvers had time to learn some excellent lessons from the master who carved the original Great Box. “We learned something new pretty much every day,” Gwaai said. “We had a good idea of certain star features that are very interesting and obvious. But every single day, whatever we worked on, we noticed and learned something.”

Jaalen and Gwaai holding the replica box bringing it home on October 10th.

Photo: Pitt Rivers Museum/Michael Peckett

Certain cuts surprised the Edenshaws as they worked. The master who carved the original Great Box appeared to react to the tone and grain of the cedar itself –  it is also apparent he considered how the box would look in firelight and in the changing light from a longhouse’s smoke hole. Jaalen and Gwaai discussed these subtleties at length to find the best ways to go about these techniques. Both acknowledge that their partnership was crucial to understanding the original design. “When we disagreed with each other, it led to a better design over all,” Jaalen explained.


Painting and carving will begin again after the new box returns to Haida Gwaii. The Edenshaws have yet to carve trout heads on the back of the box; they will also be painting its sides.