A reckoning for three Canadian museums
An exhibit from the third floor of B.C. Royal Museum is pictured in Victoria, Wednesday, December 29, 2021. The museum announced that it will be closing the third floor including parts of the First Peoples Gallery in an effort to decolonize the institution. The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward.
Marsha Lederman, How three Canadian museums are reckoning with their past mishandlings of Indigenous history, The Globe and Mail, 4 February 2022
The closed-down galleries on the Royal BC Museum’s third floor tell a story. Gone is the First Peoples Gallery, with its Indigenous artifacts lifeless behind glass. Gone is Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC, a newer exhibition that served as something of a corrective. Gone is Becoming BC – including Old Town, a folksy walk through British Columbia’s history.
These were the core galleries of the museum; the kind of exhibitions people remember visiting as kids – or with their own children. The RBCM’s November announcement that it would be dismantling these galleries and decolonizing the museum was a surprise. It was also vague about future plans, which some British Columbians found alarming.
Melanie Mark, the minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, recently felt compelled to address the concerns with a written piece explaining why action is needed now: the facilities are at the end of their useful life and a new and modern museum is long overdue, not just to keep the items safe – but to rethink the treatment the pieces deserve.
The unspecified transformation comes at an already rocky time for the museum. The previous CEO left last year, following internal problems that became public after a highly respected Indigenous curator quit, citing systemic racism. They have not yet hired a new CEO.
These demoralizing HR issues and the demolition of the third floor are not unrelated. That folksy walk through BC’s history was criticized as being selective and segregated – history not just from a white settler perspective, but entirely separate from Indigenous history. At the same time, the First Peoples galleries contained distasteful displays.
In her piece, published last week, Mark wrote that the Royal BC Museum “has a duty to curate the past with an equal responsibility to accurately reflect a timeline of our shared history.”
Among the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Calls to Action in its final 2015 report was a national review, in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UNDRIP states Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.
These are guidelines that Mark, who is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree and Ojibway, takes very seriously. Many museums are taking it seriously too. From the grand RBCM, to smaller exhibit halls around the province, museums are working toward a more authentic, inclusive, truthful way to reflect history.
An essential element is that the process involves – and is guided by – Indigenous people.
“What I think is interesting is the timing of this happening at this moment in time when I’m the first and only First Nations woman to serve in cabinet,” Mark says. “What I hope to bring to the table is my own cultural lens and that commitment to share the values, the principles of ‘nothing about us without us.’”
The man behind the glass was labelled, simply, “The Chief.” No name, no Nation. His neck ring and dance apron were Gitxsan, the robe, leggings and rattle Nisga’a. A mishmash described as “Chief’s ensemble.” An amalgam, not a person. This is one of the former displays in the RBCM’s First Peoples’ Gallery.
“That isn’t a fulsome story,” Mark says in an interview this week. “That’s just an image with a one-plaque description. We demand more. We want to know more.”
While the Royal BC Museum, funded by provincial tax dollars, declined to speak to The Globe and Mail for this story, Mark, in the interview, explained that her government was reviewing a business case to modernize the museum. It’s a massive proposition, she says, and includes plans to increase access through digitization and travelling pop-up exhibitions.
Mark meets every other week with its acting CEO, who is also board chair, and promises to disclose information about budget and scope when it’s available.
Her opinion piece, she says, was meant as a reassurance. “There’s a concern that we are going to wipe out history, that we’re going to erase history, that we’re hiding history, and that’s furthest from the truth,” she says.
“But,” she adds, “we all agree that it’s time to reimagine what those exhibits look like.”
The Royal BC Museum’s troubles go beyond outdated exhibits. Allegations of a toxic, racist work environment were on display for all to see, after the 2020 resignation of Lucy Bell as head of the First Nations Department and Repatriation program. The disturbing experiences she shared prompted investigations, and the CEO’s departure.
“The minute that strong allegations come forward about people not feeling heard or safe, I have a duty to take those concerns seriously,” Mark says. “And my expectation is that things are going to change.”
Bell was engaged in a key aspect of museum decolonization – repatriation of Indigenous ancestors and items. As Troy Sebastian, a former curator of the museum’s Indigenous collection, writes this week in The Globe and Mail, when it comes to the museum’s efforts at repatriation, “First Nations are growing increasingly frustrated by the repeated appeals for patience.”
The behind-the-scenes workplace and public-facing exhibition issues are connected. This credo of “not about us without us” – and the degree to which it has (or hasn’t) been respected – permeates both.
“Indigenous people haven’t always played a role in museums that curate the artifacts, specimens, etc.,” Mark says. The more Indigenous people inhabit that role, the more influence they will have in how stories are told, she says. “And that’s why diversity at museums – the people that work there – is incredibly important.”
And leads to a better museum. Where visitors can learn about a real Chief from a specific Nation, what he really did, and wore. Where they can do more than gawk at a totem pole, but also learn where it came from, how it was engineered. Where visitors can learn about residential schools, not just be presented with a passing nod to the catastrophe.
The day before the Museum of North Vancouver opened its doors to the public in December, Monova officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding and Protocol Agreement with the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations.
After the signing, participants walked out to the lobby for the unveiling of Squamish carver Wade Baker’s Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn: The Twin Sisters, and rubbed it with cedar branches.
“We say that’s awakening their spirit,” Sheryl Rivers of the Squamish Nation says. “They’re like our ancestors, so we cherish them and respect them and look upon them for prayers and strength.”
Rivers is a founding member of Monova’s Indigenous Voices Advisory Committee. The memorandum sets out a roadmap for that collaboration.
“It was not just a photo op,” museum director Wesley Wenhardt says.
After walking through a forest-like tunnel to the main exhibition space, visitors encounter an Indigenous welcome circle, front and centre.
“One thing that came from Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish is they wanted our presence to be seen,” Rivers says.
The circle’s acoustics create a quiet experience, making it a place to reflect, or have a conversation. Nearby in another sheltered area, visitors learn about residential schools from recordings of survivors.
In this permanent exhibition, Indigenous history is part of everything – the timeline, displays about shipbuilding, mountaineering, arts and culture.
“What I love about this is that we’re integrated throughout the museum,” Rivers says. “This is the first time we’re not behind a glass case and ‘This is Squamish nation, how they lived here. This is Salish and how they lived here. This is the city of North Van and how they lived here’ – so segregated. In today’s world, we’re all interconnected. We’re all woven together.”
Place of Learning
On a pandemic Saturday afternoon in another Metro Vancouver suburb, children are digging through sand, looking for buried treasure in the archeology exhibit at the Fraser River Discovery Centre. Housed in a giant riverside space in New Westminster, the FRDC is a place where visitors can learn about the Fraser River: its history, its contents, its industries.
Over at the fishing exhibit, a plaque declares “We Are Still Here” and talks about Indigenous life on the river before colonization. But FRDC officials know there isn’t enough information throughout about the river’s original, Indigenous protagonists.
It’s a familiar story – and one that hit home for the FRDC’s Stephen Bruyneel when he visited museums out east during Canada 150 commemorations.
“Nobody told the history of Indigenous people in Canada from an Indigenous perspective. It was all the traditional kind of, you know, old white guys doing it,” says Bruyneel, director of external relations and development.
Back in B.C., he and Nolan Charles, a Musqueam Council Member on the FRDC’s board, began talking about making change.
The parties developed a Memorandum of Understanding that acknowledges that the Fraser River is inherently tied to Musqueam’s identity, culture and history, and that the Musqueam have historically been and continue to be stewards of the river.
“It’s modern scholarship meets traditional learning,” Charles says. “When we developed the declaration, Stephen put pen to paper and put it in what I guess you could call the scholarship context. We then in turn took that, sent it to Musqueam. Musqueam then put it in a traditional context. Boom. We’ve got Tatellem, the Place of Learning.”
“The Musqueam will determine what this looks like, what the stories are, how they will be presented,” Bruyneel says. The outcome is uncertain, as is the timeline. What is certain is it will be Musqueam-led and diverse.
“We will start with the stories of the Fraser from our perspective and grow it from there. What kind of stories do our neighbours have?” Charles says. The stories, he says, will not come from the “white guy anthropological perspective. The stories will come from the heart.”
They’re looking for stories and other collaborators in what will be a massive change. “I keep saying, in cultural context, FRDC got the log, Musqueam carved the canoe,” Charles says. “We’re on the beach, we’re getting ready to launch this canoe. We have extra paddles. Who wants to get in and paddle with us?”