Frank Burnett: Interesting Life, Interesting Legacy

Blitz Magazine, September 2003

Scotsman Frank Burnett led a fascinating life. The son of the captain of a Greenland whaler, he was apprenticed to a sailing vessel at age 14. Four years later, he moved to Canada, where his uncle was Archbishop of Montreal. He worked as a purser on vessels plying the Ottawa River, then as a stockbroker. After the 1879 market crash, he moved to Manitoba, where he worked as a farmer, grain dealer and private banker, then became the first police magistrate in that province. In 1895, he moved to Vancouver, became a pilot commissioner, then a pioneer in salmon canning and finally made a fortune in real estate.

But you can never shake the sea. In 1901, Burnett outfitted the 80-ton schooner Laurel and sailed to Hawaii, the Gilbert Islands and Fiji. That led to nine more voyages—to Africa, Australasia and South America and, all the while, he was writing extensively, taking pictures and acquiring artifacts. He died, in 1930, in the middle of a speech he was making at a Canadian Authors’ Association banquet.

But Burnett had already given the fruits of his travels to the University of British Columbia—1200 Pacific Island objects which became the founding collection of the Museum of Anthropology and the largest, most comprehensive collection of its kind ever held in a Canadian collection.


The exhibit has an interesting twist. Bennett wanted to document cultures and cultural interactions. He photographed groups of white visitors and settlers existing in foreign climes, to show how distinctly separate they were from their surroundings. He stepped well away from the tourist track to take portraits of Pacific Islanders, photographing their dwellings and cultural events. And he purchased photographs to augment his own, and to more clearly depict the fabric of the societies he visited—becoming one of the first explorers to purchase photography.

H1.206 3/4 View


The museum sent its curators to the origin of 112 exhibited artifacts, and many of the photographs, to revisit the cultures—of Micronesia (Kiribati), Polynesia (Cook Islands, Samoa, Niue, Marquesas, Tonga), and Melanesia (Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea). The result is a juxtaposition of historical and contemporary photographs that form a narrative linking the world as it was in Burnett’s time, and the Pacific world as it is today.

Here, photography serves as a visual representation of documentation recorded almost 100 years ago, and as a cultural artifact that illustrates a series of complex personal, social and cultural interactions.