Activism changing museums for better, researcher says

For years, Canadian Indigenous communities were allowed little say in how their cultural representations – artifacts and paintings, for example – were displayed in the country's museums. With few Indigenous curators on staff, museums often kept items taken from communities and displayed them with no regard to permission, context or, in many cases, accuracy.

Taking place in stark contrast to the celebrated exhibits were many public and behind-the-scenes protests seeking more respectful and sensitive representation of Indigenous societies; fewer controversial sponsorships; and, occasionally, the complete overhaul of museums.

In the first analysis of its kind, Visual Arts professor Kirsty Robertson's upcoming book, Tear Gas Epiphanies: Protest, Culture, Museums, traces the history and aftermath of protests, sit-ins and demonstrations in Canadian museums since the 1900s. The work is a culmination of more than a decade's worth of archival research and interviews with protesters and museum officials; it is intended to help Canadians understand a rarely recognized aspect of studies and histories.

The provenance of Indigenous artifacts is one striking example.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have had a long history of collecting human remains and artifacts from Indigenous gravesites without permission and displaying them in museums. That practice stopped in the 1970s, a direct result of protests by various Indigenous communities. Since then, many of these remains have been repatriated to their communities.

One defining moment between Indigenous communities and Canada's museums took place before the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Anishinaabe visual artist Rebecca Belmore sat immobile for two hours inside a glass case in minus-22°C weather – offering herself as an artifact. Her perch outside the Thunder Bay Art Gallery was in full view of the Olympic torch procession as it travelled west.

Belmore, the Lubicon Cree and Indigenous communities across Canada were protesting Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples – an exhibit of 650 Indigenous objects and artifacts – at Calgary's Glenbow Museum. Most pieces had previously been removed from Canada and had been stored in foreign museums. Spirit Sings marked the first time these objects would be returned and celebrated.

The exhibit was meant to showcase Canada as a culturally diverse nation. For the Lubicon Cree in Alberta, reality was far different.

They were living in poverty, crowded into ramshackle houses with no running water – on land that was part of ongoing land claims and was surrounded by hundreds of oil wells owned by multinational oil companies.

That Shell Canada and the provincial and federal governments funded Spirit Sings as a celebration of Canada's welcome of Indigenous people represented "sheer and blatant hypocrisy," Robertson said. "The Lubicon Cree protest was very significant and resulted in some major changes to how Canadian museums operated and changed their ways and attitudes towards Indigenous communities."

In 1994, the federal government formed the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples as a response to Spirit Sings.

Now, for example, museums consult Indigenous communities and work with them when setting up exhibitions about Indigenous culture. Museums are also encouraged to hire Indigenous curators.

Robertson's book also covers protests by settler and minority groups in Canada.

"In Canada, museums have frequently been sites of struggle and negotiation" and have long histories of colonial content that stereotyped or misrepresented a particular group, she noted.

The book also discusses protests by veterans against the Canadian War Museum, actions against homelessness at the Vancouver Art Gallery, interventions by Shoal Lake Nation 40 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and the Royal Ontario Museum's (ROM) controversial exhibit, Into the Heart of Africa, held in 1989.

The ROM finally apologized for Heart of Africa, only last year. It is currently staging Of Africa, a three-year project with a number of permanent displays and temporary exhibits that showcase Africa's diversity.

While the relationship between Canada's museums and Indigenous communities and minorities has improved during the past several years, Robertson pointed out, "there are still bumps in the road."

Currently, there are still too few Indigenous curators working in Canadian museums.

"Programs that have been established to bring Indigenous communities into museums are often subject to defunding when new governments come in," Robertson said.

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