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VANCOUVER—Isha Khan knew she had to build trust when she took over as CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights if she wanted to transform the institution into an inclusive one telling complete stories of the people whose histories it featured.
A review and list of 44 phase one recommendations had just been released in August 2020 on how the Winnipeg museum could tackle racism within the institution and its exhibits. New to the job, Khan had to find a way to work with staff to make it happen, and decided objectives were more important than dates.
“I worked with staff and stakeholders on identifying how would we actually disrupt racism and oppression and remove those barriers,” she said. “Then we said, ‘OK, let’s not put timelines on it,’ cause that’s what everyone wanted us to do.”
More than a year later, the museum has seen action on the recommendations, including ongoing efforts to ensure tours or programs covering Indigenous exhibits are delivered by Indigenous people. Many of the recommendations are ongoing or completed, and work on phase two is underway.
The CMHR is just one of a number of museums across the country working to better their representation of traditionally marginalized groups and making efforts to “decolonize.”
She said a “shift” in the museum community has been happening and more institutions are working toward similar goals. Hesitating to call the trend “new,” Khan said there is more of an awareness among museums to think about their role in sharing history, but also in how they operate.
“The lens that we use to look back at history is becoming more different than it might have been even five years ago, even two years ago,” she said.
Traditionally, Khan explained, museums displayed items from people or a culture through a “colonial lens.” That approach was to “share the beauty of your culture in a way that we see it,” she said.
Now, Khan said, pressure coming from “all sides” both in and outside of museums is changing things.
“I think that push is to let people tell their own story because you’ll find that sometimes history looks a little different than how you may have heard about it or learned about it in a history book or even a museum,” Khan said.
Input from cultures and people on display is sought to ensure the history is told with those perspectives.
“They ask us questions, they push us, they encourage us, and that’s how we ensure that the story that we tell is authentic.”
Recent social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, are part of the reason for change. The discovery of unmarked graves of children forced into residential schools has also caused people to think more about the Indigenous experience in Canada, Khan said.
Last week, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria announced it would be closing its third floor in January to make such efforts.
Much like Khan’s approach in Winnipeg, the RBCM’s acting CEO, Daniel Muzyka, said right now “we don’t know” what the museum will look like when its own decolonization is finished. But, Muzyka said the narrative developed will involve sitting down with Indigenous leaders in B.C.
The intention is to give a “clear voice” to Indigenous communities and their lived experience, he said.
“It’ll be years by the time we get new exhibitions on line,” Muzyka, said. “But, certainly, in the near term, we’re going to go on a broad consultation process.”
On Nov. 3, the museum announced it is closing sections of its third floor to work on the decolonization of its galleries. The floor hosts “Our Living Languages: First People’s Voices in B.C.” and the “Becoming B.C.” galleries. A full closure of the floor will happen Jan. 2.
What the RBCM will look like once the efforts are finished may not be yet known, but one former curator critical of earlier unkept promises to tackle racism and discrimination said he viewed the announcement positively.
In February this year, Troy Sebastian, a writer and member of the Ktunaxa community, was leaving a term position as the curator of the Indigenous collection at the RBCM. He called the museum a “wicked place” on social media before leaving.
“The museum is in possession of items from my community, from my family, as it is from many other Indigenous people,” Sebastian told the Star.
It housed items taken from Indigenous groups under extreme duress, he said, many were taken while Indigenous children were being torn from their homes and placed in residential schools where abuse was commonplace and thousands died of illness.
During the time the collection was built, other laws outlawing traditions or designed to otherwise oppress Indigenous people were rampant, he stressed.
Sebastian’s own community was spelled incorrectly in one gallery and, when asked more than 10 years ago, the museum refused to correct the spelling, basically reasoning that “they would have to do it for everyone,” he said.
Another problem was the “vanishing Indian” narrative presenting Indigenous people as a disappeared people, he said. On the same floor, the history of European colonialism is built up and celebrated with no Indigenous representation.
The approach places Indigenous people “outside of history,” Sebastian said, showing early tools they used, the impact of smallpox and scant mention of residential school among other features. It then simply stops.
“The history ends at around 1920-1930,” he said of the museum’s displays. “The intention and the impression one gets from that is that Indigenous people have vanished.”
Muzyka, meanwhile, said the RBCM’s effort will involve sharing the lived experiences of Indigenous groups as part of the new approach, but it doesn’t mean aspects of its current displays won’t still be part of the narrative.
The plan is to “broaden the tent” to tell a larger story, he said.
Back in Winnipeg, Khan said that to make these kind of changes people must shake off outdated, and incorrect, views of the past.
“It means changing how we think,” Khan said. “Most of us have grown up either with no knowledge or not enough knowledge or the wrong information about the history of our relationships with Indigenous people in this country.”
At the CMHR the effort has included the witness blanket, a monument to the voices and stories of those who were victims of residential schools.
But the blanket itself is not simply a piece of property owned by the museum. The CMHR has struck an agreement with its creator, Carey Newman, to be the steward of the blanket while it remains its own entity.
It’s a different approach to installation development, Khan said.
“I think museums are traditionally places where we collect items, artifacts, we display them and we tell people what they mean,” she said. “Doing things a little differently means really working with the people and communities whose stories we’re telling so we can amplify their voices.”
In the future, Khan said, she hopes museums can share stories in an “authentic and true” way.
Sebastian said it’s important to remember Indigenous people have spent years fighting for such changes, they didn’t just happen.
It’s a process not of hope, but of persistence, he said.
In five years he wants the RBCM to present galleries celebrating Indigenous people, rather than the dominant approach of focusing on problems within the community or the “vanishing Indian” narrative. There are more positive stories to share, he said.
“I suppose what I would like is that people in the future would be able to walk through the current exhibit and be able to recognize how incredibly racist it is,” he said,” and be shocked it ever existed in the first place.”

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