B.C. museum launches $500K grant to repatriate First Nations artifacts, ancestral remains

In museums around the world, cultural belongings and ancestral remains of B.C. First Nations are on display in glass cabinets and collection racks — many of them gathered without the consent of local communities.

Royal B.C. Museum's grant will help First Nations organizations recover items from around the world

Totem Hall, a central exhibit in the First Peoples gallery at the B.C. Royal Museum. The museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of First Nations cultural materials from B.C. and began developing the repatriation program with First Nation partners in 2016. (B.C. Royal Museum )

In museums around the world, cultural belongings and ancestral remains of B.C. First Nations are on display in glass cabinets and collection racks — many of them gathered without the consent of local communities.

The Royal B.C. Museum announced a $500,000 grant this week to help First Nations communities recover cultural artifacts, ancestral remains and intangible heritage like songs, stories and language recordings from museums.  

The B.C. government had previously allocated $2 million to the museum in 2016 to develop the First Nations department and repatriation program. 

Lucy Bell, a member of the Haida Nation, is the head of the department and repatriation program.

She has been at the forefront of the Haida Nation's repatriation program for two decades and knows first-hand some of the challenges that come from recovering cultural items from institutions.

"It's a lifelong journey — that's what I've been on, repatriating my own ancestors," she told Gregor Craigie, the host of CBC's On The Island.

In 20 years, Bell has helped bring back more than 500 artifacts and ancestral remains from museums across Canada and all the way to the U.K.

"The further away we got from home, the more challenging it became," she said. "We've got one more in the British Museum that we are going after."

It's projects like the Haida Nation's repatriation program that the new grant will help fund.

Henry Abel Bell from the Kwakiutl Nation on Vancouver Island sold this family heirloom — a 300-year-old blanket — to the Royal B.C. Museum in 1983 to ensure its preservation. (Joye Walkus)

'Times are changing'

Bell emphasized that the process is not adversarial or pitting First Nations groups against museums. Instead, she said, it's a matter of collaboration and many museums are open to the idea.

"Times are changing," she said. "Museums and First Nations have come a long way."

In the U.S., museums are obligated to return ancestral remains, for example. 

She said it's important to repatriate First Nations items, not just for spiritual and cultural reasons but also for the knowledge that comes from recovering and having them.     

"There is a lot of learning that happens," she said.

The deadline for organizations to apply for the grant is May 31, 2018.

In museums around the world, cultural belongings and ancestral remains of B.C. First Nations are on display in glass cabinets and collection racks — many of which were gathered without the consent of local communities. 7:19

With files from On The Island.