Ways of Walking Against-the-Grain: Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies

By Michelle K Barron**

In April 2016 the Thinking through the Museum research team hosted a workshop on the theme of Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies at Carleton University, led by Dr. Monica Patterson. I am a graduate student in the Law and Legal Studies Department at Carleton, and worked as a Research Assistant for the Thinking through the Museum project. My research in postcolonial literatures and activisms fueled my interest in this exploration and the intersections between Ottawa’s histories and the spaces of indigenous decolonization, is at the core of my engagement.

The Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop challenged normative and dominant ways of understanding and (re)creating history through curation; particularly, the team’s focus is on working through difficult and sometimes violent histories depicted in public spaces like museums. The workshop provided a space for the team and other attendees to think through indigenous representations in museums and the decolonization efforts of indigenous curatorial projects and artists.

Workshop participants enter The Great Hall at the Canadian Museum of History (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

Workshop participants enter The Great Hall at the Canadian Museum of History (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

The two day event opened and closed with walking. Starting early on Friday morning, we walked through The Great Hall in the Canadian Museum of History and in the late afternoon on Saturday we were guided through downtown Ottawa on an Indigenous Walking Tour led by Jaime Koebel. The choice to begin and end the weekend workshop with the movement between places was an embodied practice that became foundational to my thinking about what it means to decolonize institutional spaces. My aim in writing this blog post is to explore how walking itself—or physically moving from one space to another—can serve as a decolonizing curatorial pedagogy that helps us not only to deconstruct curatorial practices within museums, but also to disrupt the spaces in and around museums. I also consider the ways in which walking is especially productive when approaching difficult histories.

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Ways of Walking

(photo credit: Angela Failler)

(photo credit: Angela Failler)

At the Canadian Museum of History, the visitors’ path through The Great Hall is laid out from beginning to end: signs indicate the exhibits’ entrance and exit, separated by a meandering route leading in and around what are labeled as Canadian Indigenous artifacts. The walkway within this section slopes downward and leads the visitor below ground level into a dimly lit area surrounded by moss-green and clay-brown walls resembling an active archaeological dig site. Low-tone instrumental music emanates from speakers along the pathway, integrating sounds of the forest and directing the listener from one display to the next. Strong yellow spotlights highlight the progression of displays. This particular use of light, sound, and paved walkways determines the order in which visitors will view the objects on display. The experience of moving through this carefully constructed space became instrumental to my understanding of the practice of walking as a tool. The way visitors are influenced to walk through this exhibit places other types of walking that I experienced throughout the weekend in perspective.

Unlike our movement through The Great Hall, our subsequent walkthrough of Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow’s “Temporal Re-Imaginings” exhibit was an entirely different experience. Alex is a PhD student at the University of Carleton in the Cultural Mediations program, and also a Research Assistant for the Thinking through the Museum project. She is Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation. Alex offered us a curator’s tour of her exhibit, in which she shared visual and oral counter-narratives that disrupted some of the dominant myths of Canadian nationalism and “history”. She also explained her processes of choosing, positioning, and re(thinking) the specific pieces in the exhibit as a way of reimagining indigenous history in the current moment. Alex’s intention of representing indigenous stories and ways of knowing also opened up difficult histories, and her presentation allowed for multiple perspectives and ways of interacting with the space itself. The exhibit site is set up to purposefully fit into as well as disrupt the public space of the Canada Council for the Arts hall. Not only does the expansive, open hall serve as a space for exhibits, but it is also a highly trafficked transitional space, where passersby move through without the intention of entering into or even participating in the exhibit. This contrasts with The Great Hall whereby an accidental walkthrough is nearly impossible. The openness and the location of the Canada Council for the Arts hall allows for a range of visitors, both intentional and not, to encounter the art at leisure or in passing. This venue and the compelling content and curation of “Temporal Re-Imaginings” facilitates the possibility of numerous types of walking. During our tour I observed slow paced, purposeful, and accidental visitors; some of the visitors carefully studied all or components of the exhibit, while others appeared to be caught off guard or pulled in by a work of art. For me, this exhibit exposed questions about how walking—or otherwise moving through the physical space of an exhibit—may impact one’s experience.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-1-33-31-pmWays of Unwalking

How, exactly, is the understanding of an exhibit influenced by the way someone walks? Can different ways of walking aid in the discussion of decolonizing curatorial pedagogies? Is there a way to actively walk or perhaps unwalk in a museum to challenge colonial practices and ways of knowing? Similar to the spaces of possibility that “Temporal Re-Imaginings” opens up, our final walk through Ottawa, facilitated a type of against-the-grain walking.

Jaime Koebel’s Indigenous Walking tour provided the perfect opportunity to explore the power and potential of unwalking as a means of decolonizing colonized space. Koebel led the team through Ottawa in a way that illuminated indigenous histories, presence, and futures among the infrastructure of the city. As we moved through the urban spaces, our attention was drawn to often overlooked details, unwritten histories, and multiple and contested meanings of various and absent historical and artistic markers in the downtown corridor. Using a dialogic approach to survey our knowledge and readings of the landscape, she led us through sites such as the Aboriginal War Veteran’s Memorial and David Ruben Piqtoukun’s The Lost Child. For many of us, the information and guidance that Koebel provided changed the way we understood the space and the ways in which we navigated through streets and buildings that many of us had thought we knew. Connecting us physically to the earth, our walking not only actively challenges the normative route between sites, but as Koebel explained, also the histories that the sites embody. Visiting unknown or overlooked sites and viewing familiar sites through a new lens changed my understanding of the urban spaces of Ottawa; rather than passively walking by Ottawa’s monuments and art installations, we were encouraged to interact with spaces with a heightened awareness of indigenous contexts, and to challenge dominant narratives of the city’s history. Bringing to light indigenous traces and markers through active walking exposes possible counter-narratives, or different ways of knowing. Rather than being guided by signs, lights, music, and paths as we were in The Great Hall, the Indigenous Walking Tour was a process of actively unwalking.

Jaime Koebel's Indigenous Walking Tour (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

Jaime Koebel’s Indigenous Walking Tour (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s novel Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World postulates counter understandings of movement through memories and the spaces we inhabit. She argues that by walking she is “listening to a deeper way” to the spaces she moves through, allowing a necessary connection between herself and her ancestors (159). She further instructs her readers to “[w]atch and listen” to their surroundings as they walk, emphasizing not only the process of walking but also a particular way of walking (159). For Hogan, walking must therefore be something active and embodied. I argue that there must be a process of unwalking which highlights the need for a re-learning how to move through a space in a more active way. Hogan emphasizes a more attuned way of listening and seeing, wherein the types of things you observe and the speed you move through spaces are subsequently impacted. By actively walking where counter-histories reside, or by actively listening to counter-narratives where “official histories” are displayed, we can perhaps collectively unwalk colonial paths and stride out new ones. The embodied experience of active walking in Hogan’s work is also reflected in the upcoming exhibit at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou: Footprints: A Walk Through Generations. This exhibit is rooted in the importance of walking as strength, agency, and healing for Cree communities.

Unwalking is not only the responsibility of the walker but also the curator who can utilize the space of the museum to facilitate new conversations. By centering indigenous voices and experiences and allowing for multiple ways of moving through exhibitions, the curator can help decolonize normative understandings of settler colonial and indigenous histories. Unwalking, then, is a way of decolonizing curatorial pedagogies in the way that it opens up possibilities of counter or marginalized narratives.
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**Michelle K Barron is an M.A. Candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. Her current research integrates international oceanic law with discussions of underwater cultural heritage and postcolonial literatures. Specifically, her thesis endeavours to explore implications of violent colonial histories on bone, body, and artifact reclamation in international waters. Complementing her academic work, Michelle has also explored visual avenues in representation through her graphic compositions with the Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary and the Graduate Legal Studies Association at Carleton University. It is through her research and creative works pertaining to visual communications that her passion for the intersections of histories, memory, and the body become evident.

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Dr. Monica Patterson featured in Institute of African Studies Newsletter

The Thinking through the Museum team congratulates team member Dr. Monica Patterson for being featured in the Institute of African Studies’ newsletter. Interviewed by African Studies graduate student Kristine Harwood in a piece titled “Monica Patterson: Curating a new methodology in African Studies,” Patterson makes clear she “seeks to create a new and hybrid methodology, one that works towards reinserting historical materials into communities, questions the colonial legacies of knowledge production about ‘Africa’, and creates space for the histories and memories of marginalized groups” (4).

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-12-22-24-pmTo read the full feature, click here to download the newsletter.

 

 

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