We were nearly an hour late for our appointment with Bill McLennan, head of Northwest coast art at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, yet he still gave us a warm welcome, and a generous and intimate tour of the museum. Bill has for many years been researching the art of this region and getting to know the communities who make it. When we were at the Freda Diesing School, multiple copies of Bill’s book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations could be seen across the desks and were constantly used by students. This book was affectionately, and mischievously, called ‘the bible’ of the course by Dempsey. The black and white photographs of the bentwood boxes whose designs the students meticulously copied in their drawing exercises also came from Bill and his work. Bill stumbled upon this technique of photographing these old pieces with infrared film so as to bring out more the faded designs. Bill also sits on the advisory board of the School and is a regular lecturer there.
The Museum of Anthropology sits at the far end of the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The modern concrete building perched on a hill overlooks the Bay that edges the city. Through the museum window we see the cold waters of the Bay glistening in the light of the setting sun – the contours of hills and small islands engulfed by evergreen trees that thrive down to the water’s edge. This was like no other anthropology museum I ever saw. You walk through the entrance into a large hall with a number of different totem poles from this region, both old and some contemporary. Bill guided us through the museum which was about to shut, taking us through the main hall, the contemporary exhibits, the new wing which displays the art of this region in an innovative way and other various rooms.
In the new wing, in a section entitled ‘multiverse’, objects are displayed in glass cabinets as well as drawing on an interactive online set of catalogues. The notion of ‘multiverse’ As the panel introducing this wing explains provides an explicit valuing of different worldviews, cultural practices and ways of knowing without valuing one over another. The panel also explains the role that First Nations groups have had in helping to curate and tell the stories of the objects displayed. We were thrilled to see this perspective of a ‘multiversity’ so explicitly stated and practiced in the museum. This resonates with the idea of the ‘multiversity’ found in higher education which similarly acknowledges that there are diverse knowledges, ways of learning, teaching, engaging, relating and living. The Multiversity movement internationally rejects that there is and can be a single definition of a ‘Uni’ -versity that, in the movement’s perspective has been colonised by ‘Western’ notions of Higher Education. The multiple ways of valuing in the ‘multi-verse’ section of the museum reflects how Bill and the museum have put into practice this pluralistic valuing of cultural objects as objects to learn from in museums and as artefacts part of living cultures.
Museum practice has come a long way from earlier museum attitudes whereby indigenous artefacts were often seen as ‘deadened’ fossilised cultures, as remnants from a previous age. As Bill explained, here the attitude of the museum is instead one in which it sees its role as that of a caretaker of objects that are part of living cultures. The Anthropology Museum has long running relationships with many of the communities from across Canada where these objects come from. There is an acknowledgement that although they are stored and displayed here for the general public, many of these objects still belong to these communities and that they are entitled to use them when required, such as for certain ceremonies.
I ask Bill how the curators at the museum, those responsible for the preservation of these objects across time, responded to these changes in practice. Bill replied that they have come around over time. The approach taken is then a pragmatic one acknowledging that the museum is split between two not altogether unreconcilable positions; first, that of a publicly and government funded institution with a role of displaying these objects so that people can learn more about them and the cultures that made them. Secondly; museums also have the role of being the guardians of these objects for the communities that have made them and opening the doors of the museum so that these cultures can tell their stories too.
As we have seen, some Nations such as the Haida and the Nisga’a already have their own museum or heritage centre, whilst others do not have the facility or prefer to house their artefacts in museums and make use of them when needed. The Anthropology Museum also has a number of outreach and participatory projects with First Nations communities such as community arts projects or housing visiting artists who make their art in the museum. Bill told us how sometimes carvers would carve a pole or sculpture in the main hall for the public to see them at work and people describe this as their most memorable experience of the museum.
Museums have come to play an important role in our ‘enlivened learning’ journey, providing us with a multi-sensory learning environment through which we have walked and traced our own paths of discovery. The stories woven together in these places have been significant additions to the other places of learning we have written about such as historical or sacred sites or landscapes. Museums have also provided a historical grounding or context to the various conversations we had and stories we heard across Canada. Adding to the written sources we have consulted, and our own experiences across places, museums have provided further threads through which the mesh of our learning has taken place.
From Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, to Writing-on-Stone, from the Nisga’a museum to the Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow museum, these are all examples of museums and displays designed, curated and run by First Nations peoples to tell their stories to their own communities and to others. We learnt much from these exhibitions, from the objects displayed, to the labels and narratives surrounding them, to the total experience they were trying to create. We have over our blog postings used a number of photos from these exhibits to try to convey a sense of the stories and histories being told.
In our travels we also went to several national museums, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the Northern British Columbia Museum in Prince Rupert and the Fort Museum in Fort MacLoud. In many of these cases we also saw how national museums are trying to deal with and navigate the turbulent history of colonialism in Canada and the complex relationship between settler society and First Nations groups. Here we could see an attempt to represent the dark past of Canadian history, the oppressive Indian Laws, the broken and unjust treaties, the missionary conversions, the spread of disease, residential schools, the destruction of cultures and ways of life. We also saw attempts in these museums to show the cultural resurgence occurring since the 1960s, the contemporary artistic, educational, political and spiritual life of these communities. Many of these exhibitions were also curated in partnership with First Nations peoples.
Museums are an important source of authoritative knowledge in our society and increasingly for First Nations too. They are spaces of learning where this occurs in a multi-sensory way, not only through text, but also through objects, and increasingly through audio-visual and various digital media (see for instance my most recent film for the Pitt Rivers museum, Artisans of Memory). Museums are spaces where stories can be brought alive, that is why they are so popular especially with schools and parents. Behind these multi-sensory environments there are multiple designs, narratives and stories of how the world makes sense as well as through sets of implicit values.
Taking a slight detour and speaking about the use of museum in another context. We had wanted to go up to the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta to see for ourselves this place that is often talked about by First Nations peoples with much concern for the destruction it is causing to the water systems (not only immediately within this region but to much wider areas to connected watersheds across Canada and beyond) and the adverse health effects on neighbouring communities. We wanted to see this region as its development is proving to be the engine of the growth of Canadian economy and also because of its role as an increasingly important source of oil for the US and China. The region is then highly strategic for the oil economy but also of insurmountable significance in the costs to the environment and the process of climate change. I bring this up here because the corporations developing the Tar Sands also have their own museum in Fort McMurray designed to show the public their activities funded by private companies and the Alberta government. We wanted to see what this museum, the Oil Sands Information Center looked like and to experience its narratives and sets of values, but the journey north proved too far for our limited time.
Museums are then important sites of storytelling and conveying certain views of the world. They are also powerful institutions, closely tied with the world of academia and the sciences, which have come to have an authoritative aura for providing a legitimate description of the world. It is heartening to see that some of these institutions are now working much more closely with First Nations to not only include but voice their own view of the world, narratives of their histories, their ways of living, their spirituality and values. It is also significant how First Nations are appropriating and engaging with the institution of the museum, just as they are also doing with the institution of the university, as sites for the communication of their worlds and values, both for themselves and for others.