The Current

Why a small British museum went out of its way to repatriate Haida Nation artifacts

How a small British museum connected with the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate, B.C., to repatriate Indigenous artifacts in their possession — and the growing movement to reclaim artifacts as a form of healing and reconciliation.

‘It seemed the only right thing to do [was] to actually give them back,' says U.K.-based curator

An argillite sculpture repatriated by the U.K.-based Buxton Museum & Art Gallery. Haida Gwaii Museum executive director Nika Collison estimates the sculpture is from the early 19th century. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

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When Nika Collison received an email from a curator at the U.K.-based Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, she didn't expect to see an unconditional offer to repatriate the Haida Nation artifacts in its collection.

"When I got that email, I think I was in shock at first," the Haida Gwaii Museum executive director told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"We have great relationships — and relationships to be formed — with global museums. But it's very rare that a Western museum would actually just come and say, 'How can we help you?'"

The museum in Buxton, England, repatriated the items to Haida Nation in August. They include an argillite tray with an ivory inlay, and another argillite sculpture that Collison estimates is from the early 19th century.

"Those pieces are rare for us to have access to, so it was beautiful," she said.

Pictured at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Bret Gaunt, fifth from right, connected with Collison, fifth from left, to repatriate Haida Nation artifacts that the museum had in its possession. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

Bret Gaunt, Buxton Museum's assistant collections officer of restitution and repatriation, was the one who sent the email to Collison. He said he was nervous approaching Indigenous communities to repatriate the items in the museum's collection.

"I didn't really know what kind of response I was going to get," he told Galloway. "And Nika's response was just amazing. I could almost picture her jumping up and down with joy."

The Haida Nation artifacts, and thousands of other items, originally came into the museum's possession through the Derbyshire School Library Service — a program set up in the 1930s to collect museum-quality objects that would be sent to schools in local rural communities for educational purposes.

"Over time, due to budget cuts and changes in the curriculum, the local authority couldn't really afford to run that service," Gaunt said. "Then, they were transferred to Buxton Museum."

An argillite tray with an ivory inlay, which was repatriated to the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate, B.C. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

While the small museum, run by the Derbyshire County Council, debated what to do with the thousands of artifacts now in its possession, Gaunt said he saw a "real, golden opportunity to start reaching out to communities in Canada and the U.S." after reading more about repatriation efforts.

Though Collison had seen photos of the objects before their arrival, she said the in-person experience of unboxing and holding the items was irreplicable.

"I've been doing this for over 25 years and every time one of our ancestors comes home from a museum or university, or every time a belonging comes home, it is an incredible step forward in healing and in reparation," she said.

Relics of colonialism

Although some artifacts were originally obtained by 19th-century European settlers through trade, Gaunt said some of them were certainly "taken under duress."

"So for these objects to be taken off them under such horrible circumstances, it seemed the only right thing to do [was] to actually give them back," he added.

Gaunt, Buxton Museum’s assistant collections officer of restitution and repatriation, said he saw a “real, golden opportunity to start reaching out to communities in Canada and the U.S.” after reading about repatriation efforts. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

But not every museum has taken that initiative, despite their stalls overflowing with artifacts, according to Gaunt.

"There's almost like a hoarding instinct with museums," he said.

According to Sara Angel, the founder and executive director of Art Canada Institute, museums viewed artifacts as "ethnographic curiosities" to add to their collections.

"That goes back many hundreds of years when these sacred items ... were spoils of colonialism," she told The Current's Galloway.

Angel said that many encyclopedic museums thought of artifacts they acquired as "trophies" — "the more artifacts they had, the better," she said.

Even among collectors with good intentions who wanted people to learn about foreign cultures in a pre-internet era, Angel said there were issues.

"The problematic piece is that there was a very different notion of what those cultures meant, and there was very little effort to explain what those artifacts meant and how sacred they were," he said.

"And for all intents and purposes, they were stolen. So they didn't belong to the places that they ended up."

A ceremonial wooden spoon, which Collison said is "absolutely gorgeous." (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

For Collison, foreign museums' possession of these Indigenous artifacts is "part of that whole colonial system and stamp over our lands and people."

"It is a part of residential schools, it's part of the Indian Act, it's part of the biological genocide, it's part of the Potlatch Ban," she said. "This work is restitution and repatriation."

Government assistance

Angel compared the work of repatriating artifacts to "finding a needle in a haystack."

"In many cases, what you have is a work of art [with] little description about where it's come from," she said.

"So imagine then doing the research, figuring out where it's come from, figuring out how to contact the people to where it should go to, etc."

It's also expensive.

"It took over 20 years to bring home just over 500 of our ancestors from museums, institutions and private homes," she said. "It cost, you know, well over a million dollars"

Expenses are partly why Collison believes repatriation efforts should be very centred in federal and provincial mandates.

People need to really understand ... the immense contributions this work makes to society in almost all facets-Nika Collison, Haida Gwaii Museum executive director

But Angel said Canadian governments are behind their European counterparts when it comes to repatriating artifacts.

"We don't have legislation like there has been in the U.K., legislation like there has been in Germany recently, legislation like there has been in France where governments have said to museums [that] this is something that we have to do," she said.

According to Angel, repatriating arts and objects became part of the European psyche after grappling with Nazi-looted art in the wake of the Second World War.

Only recently did Canada begin acknowledging the need to repatriate Indigenous artifacts, she said

"In terms of the consciousness about Indigenous art, that is something that has really come in the wake of truth and reconciliation calls for action," Angel added. 

LISTEN | First Nations curator wants to know what's inside the Vatican's collection of Indigenous artifacts

Moving forward

Earlier this week, the Canadian Museums Association released a report that included 10 recommendations to help spur Indigenous self-determination at every level of a museum's operations. 

The report also listed 30 ways a museum can support decolonization. One example is by recognizing that Indigenous peoples have intellectual sovereignty over all material created by or about them.

Collison was part of the Indigenous Advisory Council for the Canadian Museums Association's recommendations to help spur Indigenous self-determination at every level of a museum's operations. She said it's a "solid report." (Submitted by Jisgang Nika Collison)

Collison, who was part of the Indigenous Advisory Council for the report, feels it's a "really solid report" that's going to help both Western museums and Indigenous nations to move repatriation work forward.

She also hopes it will help people understand the "incredible economic and social benefits" of repatriation work.

"People need to really understand, especially Canada's government, the provincial governments … the cost of repatriation, but they also really need to understand the immense contributions this work makes to society in almost all facets," she said.


Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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