Royal Alberta Museum in dispute over aboriginal consultations

A battle is playing out behind the scenes over how the history of indigenous peoples will be presented at the new home of the Royal Alberta Museum, now under construction in downtown Edmonton.

World-renowned exhibit designer Tom Hennes says he was let go without reason

Designer Tom Hennes was hired by the Royal Alberta Museum to design its exhibits for the museums's new home which is scheduled to open in late 2017. (CBC)

A battle is playing out behind the scenes over how the history of indigenous peoples will be presented at the new home of the Royal Alberta Museum, now under construction in downtown Edmonton.

The chiefs of Treaty 6, whose traditional lands include Edmonton, are frustrated they haven’t been part of the consultation process earlier. 

Exhibition designer Tom Hennes believes he was dropped from the project because he wanted those chiefs included.

Museum executive director Chris Robinson says that the museum is moving forward with a new approach. (CBC)

But the New York-based designer doesn’t know that for sure, because he says he was never given a reason why he was dropped, so he has filed a freedom of information request to find out.

“I feel I have an obligation to the people we worked with here,” he said. “The museum does not belong to the people who run the museum. The museum belongs to the public.”

When the Royal Alberta Museum hired Hennes, they acquired the services of the lead designer for the 9/11 Museum that recently opened in New York City .

For his part, Hennes said he was looking forward to working with the Canadian museum.

“There are magnificent stories to tell here,” he said. “Stories of the landscape, stories of people.”

A sense of friction

To ensure that history was told accurately, the museum assembled a panel of 24 aboriginal people to consult with Hennes and his team at Thinc Design.

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Craig Makinaw has raised concerns about the consultation process. (CBC )

Hennes said he heard painful stories in those early consultation sessions and decided not to gloss over that part of Alberta’s past.

“People started to talk about the truth of history,” he said. “We have to tell the truth of history and it was understood that the truth looks different from different perspectives.”

Hennes and his team believed that area chiefs and leaders of Treaty 6 needed to be included in the consultations since the museum was in their traditional territory.

He said there was friction when he raised the issue with the museum and Alberta Infrastructure.

“I felt a sense in one of those calls that they simply didn’t want to hear it,” Hennes said. “That we were being way too troublesome.”

Soon after that, in November 2013, Hennes and Thinc Design had their contract terminated.

Chief feels excluded 

Museum officials are saying little about why he and his firm were let go, citing a confidentiality agreement. 

But not once in his interview with CBC News would museum executive director Chris Robinson say that things were not working out with Thinc Design.

The Royal Alberta Museum is scheduled to open in late 2014. (Royal Alberta Museum )

“Their contract has come to an end under language that was permitted within the contract and we're pursuing different means of going forward,” he said. Alberta Infrastructure offered CBC News the same response. 

Robinson said he is pleased with the consultations, so far.

He said Treaty 6 members make up one-third of the aboriginal advisory panel, and elders are helping guide the process.

But Treaty 6 Grand Chief Craig Makinaw said he feels excluded.

Makinaw is concerned about whether the museum is aware of proper protocols for moving artifacts. He also wants to know more about who is on the advisory panel.

Makinaw said he has asked for a meeting with museum officials to discuss these issues.

“It’s important because it’s their interpretation of the history, we have ours,” he said. “And ours has a way different history to it than what they see, so we both have different perspectives on that.”

Robinson was surprised to hear Makinaw is upset. He said a letter was sent to Treaty 6 chiefs and Métis leaders.

However, while consultations started in November 2012, that letter wasn’t sent until January 2014.

Makinaw said it was a long time before he knew what was going on.

“It’s kind of disappointing, because if we're not informed of happenings that are there, how can we support it?” he said. “I'm hoping if it’s an oversight on their part, I hope they address it and come back to us.”

The museum has responded to Treaty 6 and plans to talk with the confederacy. Robinson wants all voices to be included in the consultation process.

The museum in the process of hiring new consulting firms and contractors to design the galleries.

As for Hennes, his lawyers are in discussions with Alberta Infrastructure over $400,000 he claims he is still owed for design work.

The new $360-million museum is being funded by the provincial and federal governments and will replace a smaller structure in Edmonton's Glenora neighbourhood. 

Construction started this year with the grand opening scheduled for late 2017.

With files from the CBC's Gareth Hampshire


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