Thursday, 28 April 2016

Diversity Mini Conference: Recap

Our Mini Conference on Diversity was a great success!
Thank you so much to our presenters and all you fantastic attendees, and thank you to our hosts at the Ireland House Museum!

If you have any notes you would like to share from the presentation, just send them to one of your HME coordinators and we'll get them up here on the blog!

Heather George - Public History and Research Services

Museums and Privilege

Indigenous Programming/Museums and Privilege As museum practitioners we often neglect to acknowledge the history of our institutions as representations of colonial thinking and collecting. This history combined with a lack of comfort or knowledge about Indigenous people often leads to poor programing, improper presentation of Indigenous people and mistreatment of culturally significant artifacts. By providing an overview of some of the challenges and opportunities for museums as well as some national and international policy I hope to assist museum practitioners in developing more inclusive and culturally sensitive programing.


She:kon, Heather ni'i ionkiats, Kanien'kehaka ni wakohwentso:ten

Museum History 101


Where to start.... well lets start at the the beginning the world was a big ball of water, one day a strange creature fell from the sky, this creature was a woman, a sky woman and she was rescued by a flock of birds and placed on the back of a huge sea turtle....ok maybe that is a bit too far back but the point is we all come to view the world around us through a set of values and beliefs and according to the National Household Survey in 2011 about Two-thirds of Canada's population — just over 22.1 million people — reported affiliation with a Christian religion. BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH MUSUEMS?

Well lets move up in time a bit to 1452 and Pope Nicholas the 5th who issued to King Alfonso the 5th  of Portugal the bull Romanus Pontifex, (more commonly known as the Doctrine of Discovery) declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories. In fact this doctrine has never been repealed and not only legalized Colombes's whole sale murder of Indigenous people but was also most recently used by the US supreme court in 2005 in the City of Sherill v. Oneida Nation of Indians, you can guess who lost the case. 



According to the Tate Museum "museums of today have evolved out of two apparently basic aspects of human nature – our curiosity and our desire to collect. A museum by today’s standards is formed from the sum of a building housing a collection, and the work of a staff in forming, preserving and interpreting that collection." Therefore museums are not without bias as they reflect the beliefs of the staff that run them; the boards that provide oversight and direction and the visitors and communities that access them.

From early cabinets of curiosity that displayed great collections to the public in Europe to  P.T. Barnum, one of the first Americans to capitalize on the show business these cabinets in 1841, museums have reflected the views of predominantly white, educated, middle class, Christian members of society.
In her book Collections and Objections Michelle Hamilton explains that "Most Members of early historical and scientific societies (where many of the collections in our museums' come from) were educated men and women who followed Victorian Dictates of well-rounded self improvement through leisure learning. At each meeting, they presented and discussed papers on a variety of topics, including natural sciences, literature, classics, and history. Members favoured object driven lessons and spent a great deal of their time amassing and classifying artefacts in society museums that they believed contributed to scientific knowledge and spread patriotism thought the preservation of Canada's Past." 

Many Victorians also adhered to a concept known as Social Darwinism the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak. The theory was used to support laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism. Class stratification was justified on the basis of “natural” inequalities among individuals, for the control of property was said to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes.


British historian Stuart Laycock dug into the history of almost 200 nations and found only 22 that the England hadn’t marched into, so yes most Canadian museums and many European ones too really are reflections of this type of colonial thinking and occupation.

The issue of how Indigenous cultural items are displayed and interpreted came to the forefront of the public discussion in 1988, not at a museum, but at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. A cultural display called "The Spirit Sings" was meant to showcase Canada's rich Aboriginal culture. But it was sponsored by the shell oil company which was involved in a land claims dispute with the Lubicon Lake Cree. The Lubicon asked museums not to lend artefacts to the display and asked people not to attend. That boycott led the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association to jointly tackle the issue of Indigenous people and Museums and in 1992 they issued a report on their findings. Their recommendations addressed repatriation from a variety of perspectives, including the methods institutions used to acquire their artefacts. The final report also recommended that Indigenous Peoples have a greater role in how their history and culture is displayed.



Well many of us work at National Historic Sites with Nationalistic Narratives and we apply to granting programs like Canada 150 to celebrate and promote these narratives but how do we as Indigenous people talk about this??

Another great example from a few years ago was #SIRJAM i.e. Sir John A McDonald, I'm sure many Canadian History Nerds were thrilled to see Canada's First Prime Minister make a social media comeback but this is the same Prime Minister who ordered the execution of Louis Riel,  played a pivotal role in the formation of the residential school system and signed off on the numbered treaties all while ordering the Department of Indian Affairs to withhold food from Indigenous peoples until they were forcibly moved to federally-designated reserves far from the path of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

So that brings me to a question WHAT MAKES CANADA A NATION  when I ask kids this they sometimes have a hard time answering it, a common language, political system, cultural practices and food? Well Indigenous Nations have all of those things too!

What narrative does your museum tell (what does it leave out?)

Indigenous Studies 101


So training a short break from museums studies I wanted to give everyone a bit of an Indigenous Studies 101

In his book Custer Died For Your Sins Vine Deloria Jr. explains what "Indians are like" He says "Indians are like the weather. Everyone knows all  about the weather, but none  can change it. When storms are predicted, the sun shines. When picnic weather is  announced, the rain begins. Likewise, if you count on the unpredictability of Indian people, you  will  never be  sorry. One of the finest things about being an Indian is that people are  always interested in you and your "plight." Other groups have difficulties, predicaments, quandaries, problems, or troubles. Traditionally we Indians have had a "plight." Our foremost plight is our transparency. People can  tell  just by  looking  at us  what we want, what should be done to help us, how we feel, and what a "real" Indian is really like. Indian life, as it relates to the real world, is a continuous attempt not to disappoint people who know us. Unfulfilled expectations cause grief and we have already had our share. Because people can see right through us, it becomes impossible to tell truth from fiction, fact from mythology. Experts paint us as they would like us to be.  Often we paint ourselves as we wish we were or as we might have been. The more we  try  to be ourselves the more we are forced to defend what we  have never been. The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always there. These Indians are fierce, they wear feathers and grunt. Most of us don't fit this idealized figure since we grunt only when overeating, which is seldom. To be an  Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical. 

Lets take a quick break for terminology.

I think I just used the word "Indian" about ten times, and many Indigenous people and even scholars do use the word "Indian" not only that but the law that defines who is a First Nations person in Canada is called the Indian Act. All of that aside I hate the word mostly because of the stereotypes that go along with it.

Aboriginal is also used a lot by the government, it encompasses First Nations, M├ętis and Inuit each group with its own relationship to the Federal government. I can safely say best of all is if you can use a Nations Name for themselves and recognize the uniqueness of the over 600 different Indigenous Nations residing in what we call Canada.

I did mention the Indian Act, it officially came in to effect in 1876 as a federal law that pertains to status, bands and reserves, currently it is the only Canadian Law that is made to apply to a specific group of people based on their ethnicity, and it's a doozey. Throughout its 140 year history the law has outlawed potlatch ceremonies (1884) taken away rights to legal council (1920s-1950s) prevented women from voting in band council elections until 1950 and removed their status if they married non-Indigenous men (until 1985) as well as plethora of other interesting restrictions about wearing of ceremonial dress, citizenship and land ownership.

Some other interesting figures include that there are over 3000 reserves in Canada and over 200 in Ontario about 50% of the population of "status" people live off reserve. A dramatic shift that has only taken place in the last 50 years or so and lastly although the closest Haudenosaunee (or Six Nations Community) is about an hour from here on the Grand River there are actually 20 different reserve communities (plus urban populations) that are home to Haudenosaunee people.

NO we don't get free education (there is limited post secondary education funding and primary schools on reserve receive about a third of the funding per capita as off reserve schools)

NO reserves aren't a burden on tax payers. Bands Money comes from two sources Capital Money (royalties from sale or surrender of land or assets like oil timber etc) and Revenue Money (which is everything else that a band self generates).

Yes we do pay taxes, the exemption is from PST and Employment income is exempt from income tax only if the money was earned reserve.

Voice and Authority in the Museum


So who has authority to speak on behalf of and for Indigenous people or teach about us for that matter? I would argue that the only ethical way to approach Indigenous programing in museums is to have it developed and delivered by and in collaboration with Indigenous people 

The reality is we can't be afraid of difficult stories and political discourse in our museums. History and museologology is inherently political because we as museum practitioners don't exist outside of the culture and politics of current Canadian Society nor society of the time period our collections were amassed in.

Canadian author John Ralston Saul has spent much of his literary career as of late trying to assist Canadians in understanding this very idea and its application to Indigenous people. In his book The Comeback, Saul focuses on the Idle No More movement and argues that Sympathy (the lens through which most Canadians view Indigenous issues) is just soft racism, its a fine point of entry but obscures why things are the way they are. “The actual problem," He Says "is they have rights, and they’ve been removed. If they had their rights back in the full sense of the word, you wouldn’t have to feel sympathy. Sympathy is a way of not dealing with the central issues of the treaties.” (Globe and Mail Interview 2014)

I know that our own education is lacking but recent changes in elementary school curriculum will help future generations and we all have a responsibility to become more knowledgeable about Indigenous people as the Canadian government and thus it's citizens have a treaty relationship with Indigenous people.


SO QUICK many people have actually been to a reserve?) This is a map of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and it along with Mississauga's of New Credit are only about an hour away - so you should visit!
The Feelings (Ethics) and Legalities of our Profession

So here's something to consider...try typing museum ethics into Google search bar this is what I came up with, granted Google has noticed my cultural values through its search algorithms but I was still a bit shocked. 

So lets talk a bit about ethics or the touchy feely side of things.

First you should be ok with the idea of NO, not all knowledge needs s
 to be or should be shared, the idea of knowledge as free and open to all fails to recognize that there are some things that are scared and shouldn't be shared, this might include elements of your collection, just because you have an Indigenous artefact that has been labelled in a certain way doesn't mean you should take for granted that that is what it is, consult with local communities find out if you have things in your collection that need to be cared for in a certain way or should be returned to the source community. 

We as museums are making money from other people's history, this is especially important to recognize with marginalized groups, I know you're all thinking hey what money is she talking about we have a shoe string budget! But if you apply for a grant to develop an education program about Indigenous people the grant is a source of income as is the money you will receive from the program. The same can be said of developing exhibits.

When you develop programs, design exhibits, or do collections work you should ask yourself who benefits from this who am I empowering or for that matter taking power away from, what knowledge does my audience have, how can I give authority to the people who know this history best.

Because I have to ask what is the point in collecting things and keeping them in our museums if the living culture is threatened?

Over the last 20 years many museums have taken up the recommendations that came out of "The Spirit Sings" exhibit controversy. So now I would like to take a few minutes to bring you attention to some of those policies:

CMOG standards which most of us are required to adhear to due to funding require that museums demonstrate a commitment to ethical behaviour in collection development (e.g. repatriation, human remains)   they also require within Interpretation and Education that museums Demonstrate  commitment to ethical behaviour, and that museums ensures the relevance, accuracy and effective communication of its interpretation and education programs by:  Using appropriate expertise, including staff, volunteers, community groups, or consultants.

At the national level the CMA ethics guidelines stipulate under section C3 that Museums should respect the world view of other cultures or communities, including oral history and traditional knowledge concerning culturally significant objects and human osteological material. Information about these culturally sensitive objects may not be readily available, and it is the responsibility of museums to actively seek it out, and to consult with knowledgeable members of the appropriate communities before using the material in any way

Most recently at the National Level the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating residential schools included museums in their recommendations for ways to move towards reconciliation under recommendation number 67 they "call[ed] upon the federal government to provide funding  to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in  collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations. As well as stating that “there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past. ” (p. 308)

Across the border most reparation efforts are happening under NAGPRA The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a Federal law passed in 1990. NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items -- human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony -- to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Internationally organizations like ICOM and the UN have made statements pertaining to rights of Indigenous people in relation to collections and interpretation, and all of these recommendations and laws have relevance in our context but only if we review them and ensure that our facilities uphold the values we espouse to through our professional association with these organizations.

The Power to Create Change

Finally I want to summarize by reminding all of you that we are up against a few hundred years of colonialism, it is going to take time to change this but if we don't start now when will we?

Be an us tell our stories but don't tell them for us. Great examples of this kind of work can been seen in the permanent exhibit space at THEMUSEUM where they interviewed Indigenous community members and let them design their own area of the exhibits; Remembering the Pledge of the Crown event hosted by Dundurn Castle last April, The Art of Peace exhibit hosted by the McMaster Museum of Art this winter, and the Discovering Kanata outreach education program developed through a MAP grant with the Niagara Falls History Museum and Chiefswood National Historic Site. 


It's time to change stereotypes and alter our historical narratives it's time to empower those whom we have written history about to write their own history. 
Finally let me leave you with the thoughts of the fantastic author Thomas King who points out in "The Inconvenient Indian" that "In 1492, native people discovered Columbus:" He explains that "Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. It’s the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign. Which, of course, it isn’t.”

Nya:weh (thank you)

For more info, check out:
Collections and Objections by Michelle Hamilton
Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria Jr
The Comeback by John Raulston Saul
The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
The Indian Act
Task Force Result on Museums and First Peoples (PDF)
Truth and Reconciliation Report
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF)

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