Royal B.C. Museum calls on Indigenous people to submit stories about relics

The Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria has brought in Francine Cunningham as the guest editor for the spring issue of its digital magazine Curious, which will focus on Indigenous peoples' relationship to the museum's collections.

Museum's magazine Curious to focus on Indigenous peoples' relationship to the museum's collections

B.C. Premier Christy Clark makes an announcement regarding ancestral remains and belongings of cultural significance during a ceremony at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, B.C., on June 21, 2016. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

An Indigenous artist and writer says First Nations artifacts in museums are not simply cold, hard objects, but are rather the belongings of families and communities.

The Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria has brought in Francine Cunningham as the guest editor for the spring issue of its digital magazine Curious, which will focus on Indigenous peoples' relationship to the museum's collections.

The issue will feature essays, articles, creative writing, images, video and sound submitted by Indigenous people about their perspective on the relics kept at the museum, whether the items should be there, and how they feel visiting the space.

"I really want the point of view of people who maybe feel excluded from the museum setting or feel like they haven't been welcomed before," Cunningham said.

For some, visiting the museum and reflecting on the collections can be a challenging experience, she said, because it serves as a reminder of historic policies that banned First Nations' traditions and stripped them of their belongings.

Cunningham said it can be very upsetting "when you can walk into the museum space and you see something from your family, and you know maybe it shouldn't be there."

'A multitude of perspectives'

Museums also artificially preserve some relics, such as totem poles, that weren't traditionally expected to survive the passing of time, she said.

"When they were carved and when they were raised, they were meant to eventually disintegrate and fall back into the earth."

David Alexander, the museum's head of archives, access and digital, said this edition of Curious comes at time when the museum is starting up a First Nations department and has been working toward repatriating items to Aboriginal communities.

Collections and archives are often put together by people who are not from the community where the items originate from, he said. This issue of the magazine is an opportunity to change that by having Indigenous people discuss the relics from their communities.

"I think it's important for us as the provincial museum and archives to make sure our collection ... always has a multitude of perspectives," Alexander said.

Many collections viewable online

Cunningham is encouraging First Nations youth to contribute to the magazine and use it as an opportunity to discover belongings from their communities for the first time.

She plans on holding public workshops for youth at the museum where they will look through collections and then turn what they find into stories for the magazine.

Not everyone can physically visit the museum, but many collections, archives and research have been digitized and can be accessed by the public online.

Whether it is a perspective of discovery or one of alienation or pain, Cunningham said she wants to include a diverse range of ideas through the submissions that will be featured in the magazine.

Cunningham said she will offer support to everyone, regardless of their experience in writing or visual storytelling, in putting together a submission by the deadline of Jan. 15.