BC museums face the story of stolen Indigenous artefacts

This week, the Royal BC Museum in Victoria announced the closure of two exhibitions to consult with First Nations and reconfigure its third-floor galleries

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Museums in British Columbia face growing questions about the legitimate ownership of artefacts in their possession and how they portray Indigenous history in their exhibits.


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This week, the Royal BC Museum in Victoria announced the closure of two exhibits to consult with First Nations and reconfigure its third-floor galleries to reflect a more diverse range of experiences after decades of Indigenous activism.

“Museums, which started out as colonial collecting institutions, generally fall into the trap of portraying indigenous communities as those of the distant past and settlers as the main players in society,” said Ry Moran, former director of the National Research Center for Truth and Truth. Reconciliation.

“The Royal BC Museum’s decision indicates a recognition that museums need to be much more truthful and honest in the way they present history. It’s time for settlers and First Nations people on the same land to tell their stories together, ”said Moran, a Métis member from the Red River who currently works as a reconciliation librarian at the University of Victoria.


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Troy Sebastian of the Ktunaxa Nation stepped down as Curator of the Indigenous Collection at the Royal BC Museum in February.

“The third floor of the museum has two sections,” Sebastian described on Twitter. “On the one hand, the history of British Columbia is told without any presence of Indigenous peoples, while the First Peoples Gallery portrays Indigenous peoples as backward, nameless, faceless and uncivilized. “

The curator also questioned the rightful ownership of Indigenous artifacts, including a baby carrier the museum acquired in 1929 when First Nations children were forced to attend residential schools and their cultivation was banned.

Former Indigenous Collection curator Lucy Bell cited a toxic culture of racism in the workplace as the reason for her resignation in 2019. A BC Public Service Agency investigation released in June found that exhibits on the human history of the Royal BC Museum were outdated and focused narrowly on the province’s European colonial past.


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“As long as the museum continues to own the sacred objects of my family that were taken from us during (the residential school era), I will never really be able to leave,” Sebastian said in a tweet.

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings called on the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake a review of museum policies and practices in collaboration with Indigenous peoples.

The third floor of the Royal BC Museum is largely focused on the experience of European settlers, not First Nations history.
The third floor of the Royal BC Museum is largely focused on the experience of European settlers, not First Nations history. Photo by ADRIAN LAM, COLONIST OF TIMES /PNG

Sharon Fortney, curator of Indigenous collections and engagement at the Vancouver Museum, says the museum first made a concerted effort to decolonize its exhibits in the early 2000s, implementing its own repatriation policy in 2006 before that the BC Museum Association calls on institutions to repatriate ancestral remains to their home communities this spring.


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“It was a conscious choice on the part of the staff as we reflected on the idea that reconciliation sometimes gives the impression that two parties are coming together on an equal footing, when the laws of our country have really been distorted. in favor of settlers to the detriment of indigenous peoples since the mid-19th century.

Since then, Fortney has worked with First Nations curators on exhibitions such as c̓əsnaʔəm, developed with Musqueam in 2015, and Haida Now, which was on display until August 2021. Admission was free for those who identified as indigenous.

The search for the showcase saw some 40 people from the coastal community spending time with the cultural items on display, said Kwi Jones of Haida, co-curator of the Haida Now exhibit.


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Jones said she invested her time and expertise in the display on one condition: “That the (Vancouver Museum) return some of the material to us.”

The museum agreed. So far, many artifacts, including a totem pole carved by his biological grandfather, have been returned to his remote community after decades of sleeping in private collections.

“My aunts and uncles all remember the totem pole,” Jones said. “It is a part of the living memory of my family.”

In an effort towards reconciliation, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia is providing funding for Indigenous groups to access their collections, whether by traveling or by having an object transported to their community. origin.

“We want communities to be able to use their heritage pieces in their potlatches,” said Director Susan Rowley, noting that the museum also offers free entry to Indigenous peoples.

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