The Garden of Contemplation: Governing Affect in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Image of the Garden of Contemplation at the CMHR
The Garden of Contemplation’s still pools of water, surrounded by Mongolian rock.
(Photo credit: Jade DeFehr)

By Jade DeFehr*

I have visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) a number of times throughout my university studies, whether for class, research concerning museum studies, or with visiting family. Nearly all of my visits to the CMHR have included a brief walk through the Stuart Clark Garden of Contemplation. Lush green plants border shallow pools of water, which glisten over volcanic Mongolian rock. The space is exposed to the building’s expansive glass exterior, with light streaming in on sunny days. The garden is a calm, open space in the center of the museum. Away from the exhibits and main museum pathway, the noise is slightly softer, with the din of children and visitors in the background. While the Garden of Contemplation is designed to allow for rest and reflection, as well as hosting occasional events, it is also a transitory space, functioning as a pathway between the central elevators and Gallery 5, “Protecting Rights in Canada.” In my own research, I have found that scholarly critical analyses often overlook the Garden and its significance, likely due to its lack of didactic content. However, as “the heart of the museum” (“CMHR”), the Garden shapes our affective responses to the rest of the museum’s content by containing and directing our emotion in specific ways.

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Spaces designed for visitors’ personal reflection have become increasingly popular elements of museums exploring heavy content matter. Christopher Marshall suggests that museums have begun incorporating experiential and artistic features into their layouts to balance the didactic content throughout the rest of the museum, inspired by the design of art galleries. He calls these open-ended aestheticized displays “slow space[s],” which provide visitors a moment to pause and decompress as they travel between dense information-based exhibits (174).

The Garden provides a pathway from Gallery 5 to the elevators. (Photo credit: Jade DeFehr)

For example, in Ottawa, the Canadian War Museum features the headstone of the Unknown Soldier in Memorial Hall (“Memorial Hall”). The room is stark and empty, with a shaft of light stretching across a narrow pool of calm water, illuminating the headstone on the concrete wall. In the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Contemplative Court centers around a cylinder of water pouring into a small pool, with quotations about freedom and justice transcribed on the walls (Keyes). The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York also uses water as an impetus for deep thought. The Memorial showcases two massive, cascading waterfalls set into the ground in roughly the same square footprints of the Twin Towers. The website notes that the Memorial “conveys a spirit of hope and renewal, and creates a contemplative space separate from the usual sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis” (“Design Overview”). These introspective exhibits typically share the common characteristics of minimalist design with natural materials, places to sit, and limited didactic information.

Marshall argues that these slow spaces simultaneously operate as “free spaces” encouraging open-ended responses to the museum content. However, rather than fostering an unlimited range of affective responses, I am curious how these spaces may encourage specific and controlled forms of emotion—namely, calmness, hopefulness and, at times, sorrow, all channeled through the pretense of self-reflection In the Garden of Contemplation, we can especially observe the CMHR’s optimistic focus. As Nicole Ritchie and Erica Lehrer both note, the Garden marks the progression from dark to light as visitors gradually approach the Israel Asper Tower of Hope at the top of the museum. The Garden aims to foster personal enlightenment through the visitor’s growing awareness of human rights (Ritchie 73). The museum’s positive messaging therefore strives to shape, and even control, affective responses within the Garden and other exhibits. 

Offices and a large quotation from the UN Declaration of Human Rights loom above the Garden. (Photo credit: Jade DeFehr)

Visceral and bodily expressions of anguish, outrage, grief and contempt take place more commonly outside the museum, often in the form of protests, museum boycotts, or other dissenting acts. Sobbing, chanting, or shouting, whether individual or collective, might not be considered appropriate in the Garden. Importantly, cubicles and offices overlook the space, reminding visitors that the museum is an institution and workplace, conjuring expectations of subdued emotional expression. It is also worth noting that the Garden is named after Manitoban oilman and philanthropist, Stuart Clark (“Stuart Clark”). Fittingly, tossed coins dot the bottom of the Garden’s still pools, as if to remind visitors that even neutral spaces are tethered to deeply contested financial sponsorship. Yet the Garden aspires towards quiet meditation rather than outrage at the questionable ethics surrounding the exhibit’s very source of funding.

As Nicole Ritchie notes, the museum’s emotive expectations are particularly evident in the CMHR’s mobile app, which features an interactive Mood Map for each exhibit, including the Garden. The app asks visitors to record on a graph or slider how the Garden makes them feel on a scale out of ten, from “Moved” to “Inspired” and from “Thoughtful” to “Surprised.” By directing visitors’ affective responses throughout each exhibit, the museum renders such responses unthreatening and non-resistant. The Garden’s controlled range of feeling expresses a form of “muted affect,” which Hariman and Lucaites describe as the “containment of emotionality” (6).

Filtering visitors’ felt responses to museum contentfurther risks “underestimat[ing] the knowledge and experiences” of its audiences (Failler 246). In this sense, the Garden can take on a parent-like role in comforting and guiding the visitor through the museum.

However, even the Garden’s water carries with it responses of rage and betrayal, despite its intended use for calmness, healing and reflection. The water originates from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which was relocated for the construction of Winnipeg’s aqueduct and has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years (Perry). Erwin Redsky, Chief of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and Cathy Merrick, Chief of Pimicikimak Okimawin, write in an open letter to the museum architect, “when we look into those pools we will see a century of sorrow […] Those crystal clear pools hold our tears.” These embodied responses to the museum’s cruel ironies illustrate the insidious mockery of visitors rating their experiences in the Garden as 3/10 “moved” or 7/10 “inspired.” There is not room in the Garden for the endless range of human responses to the museum’s stories of genocide, kidnappings, labour camps, incarceration, imposed colonial law, and the destruction of communities.

I will also add that these spaces often implicitly assert that visitors have not only the capacity, but the responsibility,to respond emotionally to the museum’s content—regardless of visitors’ personal relationships with the narratives in the museum. While museum visits may be educational, for many visitors they are ultimately a leisure activity. After learning about horrendous atrocities, visitors can browse the gift shop or order a glass of wine at the CMHR’s ERA Bistro to reflect with friends, or as the website states, “to duck out of the flow of life to relax.” For many visitors, the CMHR cultivates the leisureof feeling deeply.

I do feel that contemplative spaces—or any breaks in didactic content—crucially mark the gravity of a museum’s content matter. Slow spaces also foster a certain degree of reflexivity while honouring our affective experiences as critical forms of knowledge.

Tanana Athabascan scholar Dian Million calls such embodied responses “felt knowledge” (62), which colonial patriarchal academia suppresses in favour of Western notions of detached rationality.

Yet as visitors, we might do well to scrutinize the illusion of open-access emotion within institutionalized spaces. The notion that reflective spaces allow for a broad and even unlimited range of affective responses to museum content conceals the ways in which museums seek to contain emotion. The governance of emotion works to quell or redirect  affective responses that challenge the museum’s discourse; emotional dissent not only compromises other visitors’ comfort, but undermines the museum’s perceived authority.[1]

Michel Foucault asserts that “space is fundamental in any exercise of power” (qtd. in Soja 120). The CMHR’s Garden of Contemplation is no exception. Understanding how museum spaces designed for reflection continue to employ specific messaging with expected emotive results allows us as museum-goers to more fully grasp the museum’s vision and its conflicted commitments. In the same spirit of reflection, we can then ask ourselves an even greater range of questions. How might the museum’s projection of emotional responses correspond with assumptions about visitor demographics? Do we choose to comply with the intentions of the space’s design? Is it possible for contemplative spaces to truly mark a ‘break’ or sense of relief from museum content—especially as an institution located on stolen Indigenous land wherein the museum’s occupancy takes no break?[2]Consideration of the limits of contemplative spaces allows visitors to push their reflections beyond the museum’s framework, even questioning the supposedly universal need for reflection itself.


[1] Anthony Shelton and other critical museology theorists consider how constructed narratives such as theories of objectivity legitimate the museum as an authoritative institution.    

[2]Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott discusses Canada’s paternalistic approach to Indigenous sovereignty, including ignoring treaties or a lack thereof in areas such as BC, or creating modern day treaties that continue to “disempower the nations they are negotiating with.” Furthermore, an archeology report from the CMHR’s construction site suggests the museum has not properly handled the heritage and history of the “eight ancient First Nations” whose territories the museum now occupies (CBC News).


Works Cited

Canadian Museum for Human Rights (“CMHR”). CMHR. Mobile app. Tristan Interactive Inc. Vers. 1.9. Apple App Store.

CBC News. “Archeology Report Criticizes Human Rights Museum.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Dec. 2011.

“Design Overview.” 9/11 Memorial & Museum, National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Elliott, Alicia. “A Memo to Canada: Indigenous People Are Not Your Incompetent Children.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 5 Jan. 2018.

Failler, Angela. “Canada 150: Exhibiting National Memory at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Citizenship Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, 2018, pp. 358–380.

Hariman, Robert, and John Louis Lucaites. “Dissent and Emotional Management in a Liberal-Democratic Society: The Kent State Iconic Photograph.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2001, pp. 5–31. 

Soja, Edward. “History: Geography: Modernity.” The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999, pp. 113–125.

Keyes, Allison. “In This Quiet Space for Contemplation, a Fountain Rains Down Calming Waters.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 21 Sept. 2017.

Lehrer, Erica. “Thinking through the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” American Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1195–1216. 

Marshall, Christopher R. “When Worlds Collide: The Contemporary Museum as Art Gallery.” Reshaping Museum Space: Architecture, Design, Exhibitions, edited by Suzanne MacLeod, Routledge, 2005, pp. 170–184. 

“Memorial Hall.” Canadian War Museum, Canadian War Museum, www.warmuseum.ca/event/memorial-hall/.

Million, Dian. “Felt Theory.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 2009, pp. 53–76. 

Perry, Adele. Aqueduct. ARP Books, 2016.

Redsky, Erwin, and Cathy Merrick. “For Our First Nations, New Museum a Monument to Hypocrisy.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 25 Sept. 2014.

Ritchie, Nicole Anne. “Queering Museums: Questions of Space, Affect, and the (Non)Normative.” University of Toronto, 2015.

Shelton, Anthony. “Critical Museology: A Manifesto.” Museum Worlds, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 7–23.

“Stuart Clark, LL.D., June 1, 2011.” University of Manitoba — University Governance.


*Jade DeFehr has recently completed her Bachelor of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies (Hons.) and English at the University of Winnipeg. She has focused much of her research on the interlocking effects of gender, belonging/citizenship, and Canadian colonial memory. Impelled by her work as a costumed interpreter at a national historic site for four summers, DeFehr has recently delved into the scholarship of Museum Studies, investigating the stakes and conversations presented in local and national museums. In the years ahead, she hopes to continue academic and organizing praxis that adopts theorizing as a form of world-making.

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Dr. Erica Lehrer Interviewed for New Books Network

In response to her book Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places (Indiana University Press, 2013), Dr. Erica Lehrer was interviewed for a podcast for the New Books Network.

The interview can be accessed here.

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Dr. Failler Publishes Article on CMHR’s Canada 150 Exhibitions

In response to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’s Canada 150 exhibitions, TTTM team leader Angela Failler has written an article in Citizenship Studies.

Here is the abstract:

This paper features an analysis of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and its showcase for ‘Canada 150’, the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Particular attention is paid to how the Museum frames national memory, and its responsiveness (or lack thereof) to critiques and re-framings of Canada 150 by Indigenous artists, activists, historians and community leaders. Since opening to the public in 2014, the CMHR has had a mixed reception, including criticism for inadequately addressing Canada’s colonial past and present, privileging narratives of state benevolence and downplaying ‘missteps’ when it comes to Canada’s own human rights and Indigenous rights record. Recognizing that national museums have long served the colonial project of state formation and official memory, this paper nonetheless tries to notice potential openings for decolonizing or unsettling Canada 150 at the CMHR. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation’s Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations is taken up as a counter example.

50 free copies are available here (while copies last).

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An Inuk’s thoughts on the Native American Art Studies Association 2017 Conference

NAASA Newsletter Image for the Annual Meeting

By Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter*

I was invited to attend the Native American Art Studies Association conference  in the fall of 2017 to talk with folks on a session titled “Thinking through the Museum: Decolonizing and Indigenizing Arts Institutions in Canada” with Alexandra Kahsenniio Nahwegahbow, Amy Prouty, and Heather Igloliorte, who was also facilitating the discussion.

Our panel consisted of emerging arts professionals with undergraduate and graduate degrees, so I felt very thankful that Heather Igloliorte, TTTM Co-Investigator, chaired our panel and was facilitating the discussion. Her vast knowledge was incredibly important, helpful, and super informative. Her presence also helped me to not feel as lost, since I am still green when it comes to presenting and talking to folks in a conference type setting.

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This was my first NAASA, and my first time visiting the States, so I was understandably overwhelmed with all the information I was able to absorb. There were so many lovely people who made me feel comfortable despite the fact that many NAASA goers have been attending for years and seemed to split their conference time up to be able to catch-up with old friends. I find that it is very difficult to enter these spaces as a young Inuk who often feels not educated enough and a generally underwhelming presence in academic settings.

In preparing for the talk, I went into it without looking up my fellow speakers and only using Heather’s write up as a guide; it may have been a rookie mistake but I wanted the discussion to be more informal, less practiced, more relaxed, and easily accessible while ensuring that I was not too intimidated by my amazing co-presenters to speak. Alexandra blew me away with her curatorial practice, her knowledge, and her words about community. From my recollection, she spoke about “making your world smaller” to better your chances at having a more impactful change in the community. I find that sentiment to be an amazing tactic to attempt to decolonize your world (baby steps, right?). Amy’s vast knowledge on Inuit art is incredibly admirable and inspiring, and––not to sound too cheesy––but her work gives me hope in the sense that our stories and our art will continue have space in the academy.

I spoke about my relatively new role at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity as a program participant in the Indigenous Curatorial Research Practicum. I am honoured to be able to participate in this program at the Centre as I feel that the centre is an amazing hub for Indigenous artist and curators, and to immerse myself in this setting is quite amazing. I believe during the panel I joked about how I am unsure how I made it to Banff, not having curated anything as of yet, but I feel that knowing that information makes me even more appreciative of the program. I spoke as well about some of the shortcomings of the Banff Centre that I have observed, as they work towards the admirable goal of “Indigenizing”, making an  analogy during the panel that they are building stairs but forgot a few steps. By that, I mean I believe Banff Centre is trying to work towards decolonization and reconciliation, but I have been getting the sense that they don’t yet have certain groundwork in place, even  while trying to implement huge changes from above (i.e., creating Indigenous specific practicums without having Indigenous mentors in place to guide those practicums). Just with speaking to a few key people at the Centre though, I am confident that they are working to make Indigenous practicums feel more supported than they currently  are, and I have observed some steps in the right direction

After the talk I felt that the audience had very thoughtful questions and they seemed eager to hear from “the millennials”, or the emerging curators/arts professionals. An audience member had asked if we knew of any institutions that are getting “reconciliation” right, and I suggested the Winnipeg Art Gallery, especially in light of the soon to come Inuit Art Centre. We also discussed the role of artist run centres in Canada, and their importance in making small  but meaningful changes within communities.

The thing that stuck with me the most is the care and support that Indigenous women have the capacity for. Mentorship from Indigenous women has been such a blessing in my life and I feel that the only way to tear down these institutions and break the glass/moose hide ceiling is by lifting each other up and supporting one another; I am very thankful to have the support of these women in my life and I hope to one day be just as supportive and inspirational.

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Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter

*Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter is an Inuvialuk artist and curator based in Calgary/Banff and she currently holds the Indigenous Curatorial Research Practicum at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She uses art and humour as a coping mechanism to address cultural displacement and mental illness; the lighthearted nature of her practice extends gestures of empathy and solidarity.

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Dr. Angela Failler Reflects on 2014 Marsha Hanen Global Dialogue & Ethics Award

The Marsha Hanen Global Dialogue and Ethics Award at the University of Winnipeg was established in 2007 with a generous donation from former University of Winnipeg President Dr. Marsha Hanen, C.M.  Dr. Hanen’s gift supports interdisciplinary research and dialogue. The Global Dialogue and Ethics Program promotes the open expression and dissemination of ideas and respectful discussion, by supporting U of W faculty-initiated research and providing an interdisciplinary forum for research and dialogue on topics that include an ethical dimension.

Winner of the 2014 Award, Dr. Angela Failler was asked to reflect on how the award supported her research projects, and specifically how it served as the foundation for a workshop she held called Caring for Difficult Knowledge: The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Focus. This workshop then served as the foundation for the larger Thinking through the Museum project and its successful Partnership Development Grant application in 2015.

Check out the full feature on UWinnipeg’s website here.

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Dr. Heather Igloliorte wins CAA Art Journal Award

Thinking through the Museum congratulates team member Heather Igloliorte for her recent Art Journal Award! This Award, given based on Igloliorte’s article ““Curating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Inuit Knowledge in the Qallunaat Art Museum,” in the Summer 2017 issue of Art Journal, was given out as a part of the College Art Association’s (CAA) Annual Meeting in Los Angeles in February 2018.

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Dr. Lehrer publishes review: “Making #Heritage Great Again”

In response to the exhibition #Heritage at the National Museum in Kraków, Poland, Dr. Erica Lehrer has published a long-form review titled “Making #Heritage Great Again.” The review reads the show critically as the newest volley in a national culture war in the context of Poland’s recent hard rightward turn.

(photo credit: Erica Lehrer)

The review is free to read in the online journal Political Critique, the international arm of Central and Eastern Europe’s largest liberal network of institutions and activists.

Here is a short excerpt:
The #Heritage (#Dziedzictwo) exhibition at Krakow’s National Museum is imposing, grand, and low-tech. It is an old-school, collection-based exhibition that exemplifies a traditional form of museological deceit, where profoundly political work is disguised as objectivity and benevolent custodianship. But #Heritage is novel because it co-opts not only the seeming neutrality of the original museum-as-treasure-box, but also the trappings of more recent, democratic approaches to curating, all while neutralizing true civic debate.”
To read the rest of the review, click here.
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Dr. Failler Awarded CFI Grant for CRiCS

Dr. Angela Failler has received a Joh R. Evans Leader’s Fund grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) with contributions from Research Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg to establish a new Centre for Research in Cultural Studies (CRiCS) on the UWinnipeg campus.  CRiCS will house the innovative projects of Failler (who is Canada Research Chair in Culture and Public Memory), and the work of UWinnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group which she currently leads.

Failler’s overall program is designed to demonstrate the ways public memory and cultural studies research can generate positive social transformation. The main feature of the centre will be a Collaborative Research and Knowledge Mobilization Lab that functions as a multipurpose hub for research creation, networking, and workshopping. This Centre will also be a hub of activity toward Failler’s work with the Thinking through the Museum research team and its projects.

For more information, please see the press release on the University of Winnipeg’s website here.

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“Bringing Our Stories Home:” Thinking through the Manitoba Museum

By Sylvia J. Dreaver**

As a child growing up in Manitoba, you were predestined to visit Winnipeg’s Museum of Man and Nature (since renamed the Manitoba Museum in 2002) with your school.

A rite of passage for many, I can recall arriving at the museum on a crowded yellow school bus, bag lunch in hand, chomping at the bit to see the “the boat”––an illustrious and larger than life display called the Nonsuch, a replica of a 53 ft. ship, said to be “instrumental in establishing commerce in the Western Canadian fur trade––one of the museum’s most notable attractions.”[1]

The Buffalo Hunt diorama (photo credit: Angela Failler)

History, more specifically Indigenous history, was at times hard for me to understand or relate to as a young Indigenous girl. Having been adopted into a white Mennonite family at a young age, I grew up without any knowledge of my culture or who I was as an Indigenous person. I often experienced feelings of wanting to be invisible, particularly during my Social Studies class. I would look ahead in the textbook to see if there were any mentions of “Indians” so that I could somehow prepare myself to “disappear” that day. As the only “Indian” in the majority of my grade school classes, I always felt as though the other students would compare these archaic depictions of Canada’s First Peoples, with me, the “real live Indian” sitting at the desk beside them. I remember experiencing similar feelings upon visiting the Manitoba Museum.

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Entering the first gallery visitors are met with a monumental diorama called The Buffalo Hunt. The 51 ft. display depicts a waxy figure of a Plains Cree Indian, frozen in motion riding a painted horse with a gun in hand, galloping amongst a herd of life-sized taxidermied bison, three adult bison and one calf. Although generally known for his paintings, Canadian artist Clarence Tillenus created many dioramas throughout the 1950s and 60s for museums such as the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa as well as the Alberta Provincial museum in Edmonton. For the Manitoba Museum, he created five dioramas in total, including The Buffalo Hunt, featuring bison, polar bears, caribou, antelope, and moose.

As a student of museology and curatorial practices now at the university, I have come to learn that the use of dioramas to depict Indigenous history is problematic. Often displayed with fossils and/or taxidermied animals, these dioramas present Indigenous peoples as less than fully human and static––never evolving. The history of dioramas dates back to the 1890s when there was an idea to preserve what many anthropologists saw as a “vanishing race.” Dioramas were intended to tell stories of the past, seemingly a snapshot in time. [2]

The Manitoba Museum first opened its doors in 1970 in conjunction with the province’s Centennial celebrations. Still known to many by its old moniker, “Man and Nature,” it remains the axis of Manitoba history. Its mandate is to “preserve the heritage of Manitoba for present and future generations: to seek, acquire, and share knowledge of Manitoba’s history, culture, and natural world with Manitobans and others.”[3]

Having returned to this place of childhood memories recently, I found not much of its content had been updated. But as an adult, armed with knowledge of Indigenous material culture as well as the history of art and museology, my visit was a very different experience.

Text, text, and more text seemed to abound at every corner. The 70’s style typography revealed that much was unchanged from the inception of the museum. It was easy to see upon reading a panel about the Red River Settlement, that the information and language carefully walks a non-confrontational line regarding Canada’s history. This national and regional narrative, the one many of us grew up with, leaves out many truths that we now know today about the central role colonial violence played in settling this land.

Text at the Manitoba Museum of Red River Settlement Exhibit (photo credit: Sylvia J. Dreaver)

Labels and text panels in museum exhibits tend to reflect structures of temporality that reproduce specific and circumscribed cultural values. The Manitoba Museum is no exception. It continues to organize its displays according to chronology, which can be problematic when it comes to Indigenous representation. According to Ruth B. Phillips, historian of North American Indigenous art, this system tends to reinforce the idea that indigenous presence was a thing of the past, a precursor to a more highly evolved settler tradition.[4]

Chronologies have been known to recreate exclusion and cultural assumptions through conceptions of temporality through a Western lens, which links time with notions of civilization and progress. Phillips cites theorist Roland Barthes who explains the “comfort” this sort of reframing affords the (non-Indigenous) viewer.

He states “The pleasure of viewing will accordingly be those of repetition: the image will not interrupt; or break with comfortable familiarity of the already-known; it will belong to the same kind of vague, urbane, disengaged interest that is reserved for people, performances, clothes, books one finds ‘up to standard’…. it will quote, consolingly, the familiar, spatial, and temporal order of the world.”[5]

Detail of text panel at the Manitoba Museum (photo credit: Sylvia J. Dreaver)

As I ventured deeper into the walls of words, I came across a text panel that looked to be included in more recent years. Seven distinct Indigenous languages were used to describe the Northern Lights, such as “waawaate” in Ojibwe.

Amid beautiful Jackson Beardy murals is also a description of the “native worldview”  quoting Beardy from 1979. Beardy worked as an art advisor and cultural consultant to the museum, evidence that there had been at least a thought to bring an Indigenous voice in amongst the otherwise dominant and expansive settler narrative.

Another text, presumably more recent than the Beardy quote, references Indigenous mythology including creation stories from both the Cree and Ojibwe nations, such as Kitchi-Manitou, the Great Spirit. Although I found these descriptions to be somewhat simplified, I imagine they are intended for a “general” museum audience.

Another fascinating but contentious display is the renowned Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) collection that arrived at the Museum in 1994. According to the Museum’s website, the HBC began to acquire historical objects for display in 1920. Over the years its holdings grew from a few hundred objects to over 25,000 pieces. Since 1994, the descendants of fur trading families and other company employees have donated 500 more artifacts to the collection. Approximately one third of the artifacts originate from Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people.[6]

The Manitoba Museum’s replica of Sir George Simpson’s London HBC office (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

What can only be described as “booty,” the showpiece of the collection is a replica of Sir George Simpson’s London office. Simpson was Governor in Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1820-1860.[7] My feelings about the HBC collection are decidedly mixed. As a student of history, being able to see items preserved and conserved is of great value, but as an Indigenous person I am aware of the complicated relationship between museums and First People. There is still much work to be done.

The Manitoba Museum is currently undergoing a 2.5 million dollar revitalization project, aptly named “Bringing Our Stories Home.” I am curious to see exactly which stories are brought home. Although I have given a few examples of how Indigenous voices have been included in the Museum’s existing content, they still read somewhat tokenistically.

Employing Indigenous museum theory, that radically rewrites the roles of museums and re-centers Indigenous knowledge, including how objects are treated and how Indigenous peoples and cultures are represented, would be a meaningful way to incorporate multi-vocality into this important space. I am grateful for the work of Manitoba Museum curators such as Maureen Matthews, who has begun to lead the way towards reconciliation with many Manitoba First Nations communities. She has worked tirelessly to mend relationships, and has made it her life’s work to tell the stories of each artifact in the museum to the best of her ability.

I am also hopeful about recommendation number 67 of the National Truth and Reconciliation Report that calls upon the Federal government and the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices.[8] Adhering to the TRC’s recommendation could begin a new era in the relationships between indigenous peoples and the museum. It is then that we might have a chance at truly “bringing our stories home.”

[1] https://manitobamuseum.ca/main/visit/museum-galleries/nonsuch-gallery/

[2] http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/7/the-passing-of-the-indians-behind-glass

[3] https://manitobamuseum.ca/main/about-us/vision-mission-values/

[4] Phillips, Ruth B.. McGill-Queen’s/Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation Studies in Art History : Museum Pieces : Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums. Montreal, CA: MQUP, 2011. Accessed February 6, 2017. ProQuest ebrary. p254

[5] Phillips, Ruth B.: Museum Pieces. p169

[6] https://manitobamuseum.ca/main/collections-research/manitoba-people/hbc-collection/

[7] http://www.hbcheritage.ca/hbcheritage/history/people/builders/simpson

[8]http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
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** Sylvia J. Dreaver is Nēhiyawak and from the Mistawasis First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. She completed her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Art History at the University of Winnipeg in 2017 and is currently a Master of Arts student in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg. She is passionate about Indigenous Art and is committed to the advancement of curatorial research and art gallery practice when related to Indigenous art collections and associated history. She currently works as an Aboriginal Program Guide at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, working on a specialized Indigenous tour. Her areas of interest lie in gallery education, museology and Canadian cultural policy, Indigenous art and curatorial practices/perspectives within cultural institutions.

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Food for Thought: Mediating Immigration Histories through Artifact and Technology

By Noor Bhangu**

Model of Pier 21, located at the beginning of “The Pier 21 Story.” Photo credit: Lauren Bosc

I was recently invited as a Research Assistant to participate in a workshop on Re-thinking the Museum through Collaboration and Community-Based Curatorial Practices. The workshop took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia from April 24-26, 2017, and brought together graduate students, professors, museum workers, and local community members. As part of the workshop, we attended a guided tour of The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The museum is located in a section of Pier 21, historically used as a dock and one of the few sheds on the East Coast to process immigrants to Canada from 1928 and 1971. Opened as a public museum on Canada Day, 1999, the site was described by Jean Chrétien, then Prime Minister of Canada, as a monument to the people of Pier 21, who by joining the Canadian family became the “envy of the world today.”[i] It was not until 2009 (and Stephen Harper’s conservative ministry) that the museum was established as a new Crown corporation and re-designated a national museum, whereupon it was also asked to articulate the broader story of immigration to Canada, extending beyond the history of the people processes at Pier 21.[ii] The museum reopened its doors to the public in June 2015, following a six month long, $30 million expansion.[iii] “The Pier 21 Story,” its main permanent exhibition, was updated and revised while a new exhibit, the “Canadian Immigration Story,” was added to accommodate for the other (previously unrepresented) immigrants who, according to Bob Moody, the CEO of Pier 21 Society, transformed Canada into a “country of immigrants.”[iv]

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Remarkably, these administrative revisions and extensions of the past two decades are still visible in the two-storeyed structure, which struggles to make space for contemporary demands while still seeing itself as monument for a specific past. The first floor houses temporary exhibitions, such as “Canada: Day 1” and “Mosaic: Identity and Community Connection,” and the second floor holds the permanent exhibitions, “The Pier 21 Story” and “Canadian Immigration Story.” Our group’s visit began on the second level through the permanent exhibitions, and finished with a shorter wander through the temporary exhibitions on the first floor. Regardless of the direction chosen at the beginning of the visit, the museum projects feelings of nostalgia and hope upon its visitors. These feelings are mediated through the tone of the didactic panels, the reliance on sentimental artefacts in some parts of the exhibition, or even in basic timelines set up in an attempt to enclose disparate historical events within a one-directional narrative. Nostalgia for a shared past and hope for progress are evoked, perhaps, in a desire to mitigate and move away from difficult stories, which don’t celebrate but challenge the idealized history of immigration in Canada.

View of the Atlantic Ocean from Pier 21. Photo credit: Lauren Bosc.

Our hour-long guided tour of “The Pier 21 Story” began with us peering down at a glass-encased model of the pier, with the guide pointing out the historical significance of each section and its correspondence to galleries within the exhibition. Following a brief introduction of the history of this space, we moved to an open room revealing the terrifyingly cold and blue Atlantic Ocean outside. The quick aesthetic shift between the miniature model and the open room alerted me to the historic monumentality of the ocean, which alongside the architecture remains one of the features connecting the past with the present. Floor-length windows had been installed in the museum to provide panoramic access to the landscape while keeping the visitors at a seemingly comfortable distance from the world outside. Standing close to the windows, I tried to imaginatively locate the former site of Africville or the Mi’kmaq settlement of Turtle Grove, sites I knew we would be visiting over the course of our workshop. The guide took me out of my reverie by returning to a time when this bleak corridor of the pier served as the first bit of Canadian “land” touched by the recent arrivals, some of whom, she joked, were ready to return after their initial exposure to the Canadian weather. As we know, countless migrants were rejected in the process of immigration and had to endure arduous journeys back to their countries of origin from these and other docks. The reasons for their returning had little to do with their trouble with the weather and more to do with the nation’s trouble with them as people.

Besides the museum’s proximity to the ocean, the architecture itself is used to legitimate the dominance of the permanent exhibition “The Pier 21 Story” (read between the lines as the white immigration story). In his paper, “Grounds for Exclusion: Canada’s Pier 21 and its Shadow Archive,” Jay Dolmage cites Gareth Hoskins when he writes that, “the very architecture of the museum is the key artifact.”[v] According to our guide, many of the museum’s collected stories are not located in this introductory exhibition because they are not directly connected to the architecture of this building. Architectural and historical relevance become a convenient way to not speak of the troubled histories of Canada’s past, which include the erasure of Indigenous communities, the displacement of black Canadian communities, and the turning away of my own Sikh people aboard the Komagata Maru, whose stories I’m assured are kept elsewhere in the museum. Rather than opening up conversation about these troubled histories, we are told about the charming arrival stories of Europeans, at least those that were not excluded for being of the, “dark type and poor physique.”[vi]

Lagging behind the group, I catch snippets of the next story, which is about some travellers illegally bringing in various wines and meats, hidden in their pants and hats and hairdos, in an effort to prepare for the foreign tastes of the new country.[vii] We are led to a fantastic display of sausages, bursting out of their plastic containers. These colourful meats, alongside the narratives embedded in them, are difficult for me to digest as I vividly recall my own food history. During our first years in Canada, between ages 10 and 12, my mother used to pack potato paranthas with some mango pickle for my lunch, a typical, if not boring, meal for my brother and I when we attended school in Punjab, India. Some days, I felt, it was easier to suppress the smell of cold paranthas and go hungry than entertain the looks of annoyance from my peers, who didn’t have the capacity to feign curiosity beyond our first few weeks as foreign children. Stacks of paranthas and jars of pickle were not taken out of our suitcases when we arrived in Canada, instead, these symbols of difference made us vulnerable to exclusion after we had already entered the country. The museum’s interpretation of arrival stories fails to recognize that the censorship of diversity, in taste or skin colour, moves beyond the initial encounters of immigration processing and into real life experiences of immigrants.

Interactive timeline from the “Canadian Immigration Story.” Photo credit: Lauren Bosc.

Following this feeling of indigestion, I began to look forward to exploring other exhibitions in the museum that we were promised contained different and more contemporary stories.Our guide left us in the first room of the “Canadian Immigration Story,” where a large interactive timeline was set up to take the visitor through various years, starting around the 13th century. Each year briefly articulated the historical context and laws that were passed or the nationalities of the incoming immigrants of the year, while some years went so far as to comment on the presence/absence of Indigenous people in relation to the new immigrants. When it was my turn, I touched the timeline to bring up 2003, the year when my own family entered Canada through the Vancouver International Airport. Colourful lines jumped across the screen, connecting Canada with other parts of the world. After a few minutes of mute staring, I realized that there was not much for me to take in. The screen merely held arrows, dates, and a generalization of the immigrant experience in the 21st century.

New museums like Pier 21, also known as 21st century museums, are shifting in the content they present as well as the medium of presentation in hopes that diverse people will look to the museum as a space for dialogue and representation. In her book, New Museum Theory and Practice, Janet Marstine problematizes the shift of wanting to “accommodate different experiences” for different audiences in the shared space of the museum by locating it in the museums’ desire to “fulfill their role as the guardians of the [narratives].”[viii] Even as museums begin to make space for different communities and difficult histories, they still hold on to their right to author and direct these narratives.

In theory, the technological engagement of the new interactive displays should allow for the multidirectional learning experience that the Pier 21 story attempts to create. The flatness of plastic sausages and early European immigration narratives is exchanged for open networks. The machines, with their multiple screens, histories and personal stories, assumingly give the audience the power to search and construct their own meanings. The task of educating is transported from the museum to the audience, suggesting that it is now up to them to carry out the difficult work of learning. And the work can be difficult. How can we decide which story to listen to, and for how long before moving on to the next station? But how much agency does the storyteller or museum visitor really have if the stations are radiating around the dominant, teleological narrative of the timeline? The “Canadian Immigration Story,” has two large timelines, one that is interactive and one that is static. Here the museum tries to make up for its lack by pooling together diverse stories and encouraging us, the visitors, to make inspired connections. But, in the end, we are left to straddle this ideological and technological separation between the museum’s two permanent exhibitions.

During our group’s visit, a number of local participants remarked on the changes in the museum’s physical appearance since they had seen it last. Compared to its older model, the newly renovated and expanded museum was much bigger and held a lot more content. After exploring the second exhibition and many of its small interactive stations, I began to understand that this newly constructed gallery was no more than a storehouse of compensatory narratives and new technologies. Bigger is not always better, especially when we consider the stories of immigrant women trying to stuff their hair with pungent meats. Rather than expanding around dominant narratives, museums would do better to re-think and re-present stories that are already there in the shadow archives, if they really care to live up to their aspirations to present the diverse histories of Canadians, including immigration experiences.

[i] Colleen Jones. “Halifax celebrates gateway to Canada, Pier 21.” CBC News. July 01, 1999. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/halifax-celebrates-gateway-to-canada-pier-21-1.175078.

[ii] See: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/AnnualStatutes/2010_7/page-1.html

[iii] Melanie Patten. “Halifax’s Pier 21 uses new technology to tell historic immigration tales.” National Post. November 2, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2017. http://news.nationalpost.com/life/travel/halifaxs-pier-21-uses-new-technology-to-tell-historic-immigration-tales.

[iv] “A National Museum of Immigration to be formed at Pier 21!” Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Accessed May 18, 2017. https://www.pier21.ca/about/national-museum-of-immigration-at-pier-21.

[v] Jay Dolmage. “Grounds for Exclusion: Canada’s Pier 21 and It’s Shadow Archive.” In Diverse Spaces : Identity, Heritage and Community in Canadian Public Culture, edited by Susan L. T. Ashley, 100-21. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. p. 104.

[vi] Ibid., 109.

[vii] “The Pier 21 Story,” heavily relied on artifacts and replicas to thread together the histories and experiences of people who came through Pier 21. Artefacts were placed under glass, while the replicas were openly displayed to captivate the visitor and animate a romantic past.

[viii] Janet Marstine. New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. p. 102.

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**Noor Bhangu received her Bachelor of Arts in History of Art from University of Winnipeg, where she is currently working on her Master of Arts in Cultural Studies: Curatorial Practices. She focuses primarily on South East Asian, Central Asian and Middle-Eastern artists who interrogate gender, religion and diaspora in their work. After the completion of this program, she intends to pursue a PhD in contemporary Islamic Art.

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