British Columbia

How some B.C. museums are collaborating with Indigenous communities on path to reconciliation

Some museums in B.C. are taking steps to address their problematic history with Indigenous people and improve the way they share stories and build relationships with the communities from which their collections — often stolen — come from.

Acknowledging the colonial history and purpose of museums is the first necessary step, curators say

Totems and carvings on display at the Museum of Anthropology in December 2018. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Museums in B.C. are taking steps to address their problematic history with Indigenous people and improve the way they share stories and build relationships with the communities from which their collections — often stolen — come from.

Sue Rowley, curator at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, said the first step in reconciliation for museums is to acknowledge their past. 

"We are colonial institutions," Rowley told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko. "That's our history. That's where we've come from."

Far from being "neutral storehouses of artifacts," museums initially served to support the colonial narrative, said Jillian Povarchook, acting curator at the Museum of Vancouver. 

"Museums as we know them today really started as colonial collecting institutions that were really used to legitimate social, cultural and political power structures," she said.

Povarchook said this often involved collecting and interpreting belongings and knowledge from Indigenous people and turning them into something more "palatable" for Eurocentric audiences, which often situated those communities in the past as opposed to learning about who they are now. 

Typically, museums would take items from Indigenous communities, put them on display and have the curator, rarely from the community that owned the piece, tell the story. 

B.C.'s Museum of Anthropology houses thousands of items belonging to First Nations communities. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Rowley said that approach needs to change. 

First, she said curators should be assessing which belongings need to be returned to their communities, and then return them. Then, they should work with Indigenous people to find out which stories they want to tell about their culture and ensure that the museum is the right venue for those stories. 

At the Museum of Vancouver, curators have worked with local First Nations to put exhibitions together, lending their resources and expertise, Povarchook said. The content, knowledge and direction on how that information should be received by museum visitors, however, was generated by people from those communities.

Povarchook said her museum is also working to collect items that reflect Indigenous culture today, as opposed to in the past — "showing that there is contemporary Indigenous culture that is vibrant and that people should know about and should recognize," she said. 

One item the Museum of Vancouver is highlighting is a jacket worn at the annual Women's Memorial March earlier this year.   

The Museum of Vancouver, pictured, and the Museum of Anthropology are both taking steps to improve their institutions' relationships with First Nations communities and share their stories in consultation with Indigenous groups. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Repatriation of remains

Including First Nations voices in the work museums does is critical, Rowley says.

"We've had discussions with communities about the kinds of programs they think we should be running," she said. The Museum of Anthropology has implemented Indigenous internships, and has worked with Indigenous groups to take items to potlatches for community use.

Earlier this spring, the B.C. Museum Association called on institutions across Canada to repatriate ancestral remains and burial items to their home communities. The Museum of Vancouver came up with its own repatriation policy in 2006, which includes returning those items. 

Rowley said while the Museum of Anthropology doesn't house any ancestral remains, UBC's archeology department does, and they've been working together since 2004 to repatriate them. 

Two Lil'wat baskets on display at an exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology in 2018. (Matthew Parsons/CBC)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commision findings from 2015 called for the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake a national review of museum policies and best practices, in collaboration with Indigenous peoples.

Rowley said her colleagues are reviewing their policies to reflect that call to action and others from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls national inquiry and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.   

"Sometimes people think of museums as only exhibitions, but there's so much more that's happening with the research that's going on with collections access, with working with communities," Rowley said. 

"To me, that's a really important aspect of the work that we're currently doing."

To hear more from Sue Rowley and Jillian Povarchook, tap here: 

With files from On the Coast