How do museums in Canada decolonize? It’s a transformation that’s finally getting underway

VANCOUVER – Isha Khan knew she had to build trust when she took over as Executive Director of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights if she wanted to transform the institution into an inclusive institution that told the full stories of the people whose stories it presented.

A review and list of 44 phase one recommendations had just been released in August 2020 on how the Winnipeg museum could address racism within the institution and its exhibits. New to the job, Khan had to find a way to work with the staff to make this happen, and the goals decided were more important than the dates.

“I worked with staff and stakeholders to identify how we would really disrupt racism and oppression and remove those barriers,” he said. “Then we said, ‘Okay, let’s not set deadlines, because that’s what everyone wanted us to do.”

More than a year later, the museum has seen action on the recommendations, including ongoing efforts to ensure that indigenous peoples run tours or programs that cover indigenous exhibits. Many of the recommendations are ongoing or finalized, and work is underway on phase two.

The CMHR is just one of several museums across the country working to improve their representation of traditionally marginalized groups and striving to “decolonize.”

He said there has been “change” taking place in the museum community and that more institutions are working to achieve similar goals. Hesitating to call the trend “new”, Khan said there is more awareness among museums to think about their role in sharing history, but also how they operate.

“The lens we use to look back in history is becoming more different than it could have been even five years ago, even two years ago,” he said.

Traditionally, Khan explained, museums displayed items of people or a culture through a “colonial lens.” That approach was “to share the beauty of their culture in a way that we see it,” he said.

Now, Khan said, pressure coming from “all sides,” both inside and outside museums, is changing things.

“I think the impulse is to let people tell their own story because you will find that sometimes the story looks a little different than how you may have heard about it or learned about it in a history book or even in a museum.” Khan said.

The input of the exposed cultures and people is sought to ensure that the story is told with those perspectives.

“They ask us questions, they push us, they encourage us, and that’s how we make sure the story we tell is authentic.”

Recent social movements, like Black Lives Matter, are part of the reason for the change. The discovery of anonymous graves of children forced into residential schools has also made people think more about the indigenous experience in Canada, Khan said.

Last week, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria announced that it would close its third floor in January to make such efforts.

Like Khan’s focus on Winnipeg, RBCM Acting Executive Director Daniel Muzyka said at this time that “we don’t know” what the museum will look like when its own decolonization ends. But Muzyka said the narrative developed will involve sitting down with indigenous leaders in BC.

The intention is to give a “clear voice” to indigenous communities and their life experience, he said.

“It will be years by the time we have new exhibits online,” Muzyka said. “But certainly, in the short term, we are going to start a broad consultation process.”

On November 3, the museum announced that it will close sections of its third floor to work on the decolonization of its galleries. The floor houses “Our Living Languages: First Voices of the People in BC” and the “Becoming BC” galleries. The total closure of the room will happen on January 2.

What the RBCM will look like once the efforts are finished may not yet be known, but a former curator critical of previous broken promises to address racism and discrimination said he viewed the ad positively.

In February of this year, Troy Sebastian, writer and member of the Ktunaxa community, left a temporary position as curator of the Indigenous collection at the RBCM. He called the museum a “wicked place” on social media before leaving.

“The museum is in possession of articles from my community, my family, as well as many other indigenous peoples,” Sebastián told the Star.

It housed items taken from indigenous groups under extreme duress, he said, many were taken while indigenous children were ripped from their homes and placed in residential schools where abuse was common and thousands died from disease.

During the time the collection was built, other laws that prohibited traditions or were designed to oppress indigenous peoples proliferated, he emphasized.

Sebastián’s own community was misspelled in a gallery and, when asked more than 10 years ago, the museum refused to correct the spelling, basically on the grounds that “they would have to do it for everyone,” he said.

Another problem was the “disappeared Indian” narrative that portrays the indigenous people as a disappeared people, he said. On the same floor, the history of European colonialism is built and celebrated without indigenous representation.

The approach places indigenous peoples “outside of history,” said Sebastián, showing the first tools they used, the impact of smallpox, and the scant mention of residential school, among other characteristics. Then it just stops.

“The story ends around 1920-1930,” he said of the museum’s exhibits. “The intention and the impression one has is that the indigenous peoples have disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Muzyka said RBCM’s effort will involve sharing the lived experiences of indigenous groups as part of the new approach, but that doesn’t mean that aspects of their current exhibits will no longer be part of the narrative.

The plan is to “expand the store” to tell a larger story, he said.

Back in Winnipeg, Khan said that to make these kinds of changes, people must get rid of outdated and incorrect views of the past.

“It means changing the way we think,” Khan said. “Most of us have grown up without knowledge or without sufficient knowledge or with incorrect information about the history of our relations with indigenous peoples in this country.”

In the CMHR the effort has included the witness blanket, a monument to the voices and stories of those who were victims of residential schools.

But the blanket itself is not simply museum property. The CMHR has reached an agreement with its creator, Carey Newman, to be the administrator of the blanket while it remains its own entity.

It’s a different approach to facility development, Khan said.

“I think museums are traditionally places where we collect items, artifacts, display them, and tell people what they mean,” he said. “Doing things a little differently means really working with the people and communities whose stories we tell so that we can amplify their voices.”

In the future, Khan said, he hopes that museums will be able to share stories in an “authentic and true” way.

Sebastian said it is important to remember that indigenous peoples have spent years fighting for such changes, they did not happen by chance.

It is a process not of hope, but of perseverance, he said.

In five years he wants the RBCM to feature galleries that celebrate indigenous peoples, rather than the dominant approach of focusing on problems within the community or the narrative of the “disappearance of the Indians”. There are more positive stories to share, he said.

“I guess what I would like is for people in the future to be able to walk through the current exhibit and be able to recognize how incredibly racist it is,” he said, “and be amazed that it existed in the first place.”

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