This week, the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria announced the closure of two exhibits to consult with First Nations and reconfigure its third-floor galleries
B.C. museums are facing a reckoning as they confront growing questions about the rightful ownership of artifacts in their possession and the way they depict Indigenous history in their exhibits.
This week, the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria announced the closure of two exhibits to consult with First Nations and reconfigure its third-floor galleries to reflect a more diverse range of experiences after decades of activism by Indigenous peoples.
“Museums, which started out as colonial collecting institutions, typically fall into the trap of depicting Indigenous communities like those of the distant past and settlers as the main actors of society,” said Ry Moran, former director of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
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“Royal B.C. Museum’s decision indicates a recognition that museums have to be much more truthful and honest in how they present history. It’s time that settler and First Nations peoples on the same land tell their stories together,” said Moran, a Red River Métis member who currently works as a librarian for reconciliation at the University of Victoria.
Troy Sebastian of Ktunaxa Nation left his job as curator of the Royal B.C. Museum’s Indigenous Collection in February.
“The museum’s third floor has two sections,” Sebastian described on Twitter. “On one side, the history of B.C. is told without any presence of Indigenous peoples, while the First Peoples Gallery depicts Indigenous peoples as backward, nameless, faceless and uncivilized.”
The curator also questioned the rightful ownership of Indigenous items, including a cradleboard the museum acquired in 1929 when First Nations children were forced to attend residential schools and their culture was outlawed.
Previous Indigenous Collection curator, Lucy Bell, cited a toxic workplace culture of racism as the reason for her 2019 resignation. A B.C. Public Service Agency investigation released in June found the Royal B.C. Museum’s human history exhibits were outdated and narrowly focused on the province’s European colonial past.
“As long as the museum continues to possess my family’s sacred items that were taken from us during (the residential school era), I can never truly leave,” Sebastian said in a Tweet.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings from 2015 called for the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake a review of museum policies and practices in collaboration with Indigenous peoples.
Sharon Fortney, the curator of Indigenous collections and engagement at the Museum of Vancouver, says the museum first made a concerted push toward decolonizing its exhibits in the early 2000s, implementing its own repatriation policy in 2006 before the B.C. Museum Association called upon institutions to repatriate ancestral remains to their originating communities this spring.
“It was a conscious choice on the part of the staff as we reflected on the notion that reconciliation sometimes conveys the sense that two parties are coming together from an equal position, whereas our nation’s laws have really been skewed in favour of settlers at the expense of Indigenous peoples since the mid-19th century.”
Since then, Fortney has collaborated with First Nations curators for exhibitions including c̓əsnaʔəm, developed with Musqueam in 2015, and Haida Now, which was on display until August 2021. Admission was free for those who identified as Indigenous.
Research for the showcase saw 40 or so people from the coastal community spend time with the cultural items on display, said Haida’s Kwi Jones, co-curator of the Haida Now exhibit.
Jones said she invested her time and expertise on the showcase under one condition: “That the (Museum of Vancouver) give some of the stuff back to us.”
The museum agreed. So far, numerous artifacts, including a totem pole carved by her biological grandfather, have been returned to her remote community after sitting dormant for decades in private collections.
“My aunties and uncles all remember the totem pole,” Jones said. “It’s a part of my family’s living memory.”
In a push toward reconciliation, the University of B.C.’s Museum of Anthropology offers funding in order for Indigenous groups to access their collections, whether through travel or having an item transported to their home community.
“We want communities to be able to use their heritage pieces in their potlatches,” said director Susan Rowley, noting that the museum also offers free admission to Indigenous peoples.
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