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.


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.

**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.


On Love, Dialogue, and Decolonization: A Research Assistant’s Reflection on Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies

By Alex Nahwegahbow**

Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck), left, with Alex Nahwegahbow, right.

Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck), left, with Alex Nahwegahbow, right.

One of the great things about being a graduate student is the opportunity to assist your mentors, peers, and colleagues on exciting collaborative research projects like this one. The Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, part of a partnership development project called Thinking through the Museum: Difficult Knowledge in Public, took place over two days in Ottawa in April earlier this year. It brought together a number of scholars, artists, curators, and community members for an important conversation about the need for the decolonization of museum practices and exhibition spaces. The days were filled with discussions that made me feel an immense appreciation to live in a moment when this kind of exchange is possible, and I still have about a million thoughts and questions whirring around in my mind nearly half a year later.

Since the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop took place, I had the opportunity to act as a Research Assistant for a separate collaborative research project – one that explores global art movements and focuses particularly on the multiple art histories of Indigenous and colonized peoples that have been misrepresented or entirely left out of the Western canon. This second project brought me on a to visit South Africa, a beautiful country that also shares an extremely difficult history.

I suppose I’m referring to this second recent project here in reflection of the first because my experiences and the conversations that were had in one, very naturally seem to feed into those that occurred in the other, and vice-versa. During one of the interviews I assisted with on art projects in South Africa, the writing of Paulo Freire was raised, and over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I hadn’t picked up in a few years.

What initially struck me so strongly about this text was the way Freire very honestly and openly writes about education, freedom, dialogue, and very poignantly, about love. To be sure, love is not a word that I encountered often in the texts of Western theory and cultural studies that I began reading early on in my graduate school journey. It didn’t really seem that the concept of love had much of a place in ‘serious’ critical discussion, let alone in the academy. Scholarly discourse can certainly seem a bit resistant to people talking about quotetheir personal feelings and emotions – one is often encouraged to write from a place that is objective or impartial. But to put it flatly, when I think and write about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and the representation of difficult knowledges in sites of public history, I respond to it personally and emotionally because it is personal and emotional. And so far the best way that I’ve found to communicate the complexity and genuine need for initiatives that promote healing, recovery, and decolonization is through understandings and teachings about love.

Let me try to explain this a bit further.


In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire writes about the important role of education in promoting empowered self-awareness – an awareness that stems from the very foundational understanding that as human beings we are not separate from this world, but are inextricably part of it – forever contributing to its ongoing creation and re-creation. This thought may seem very simple, straightforward and perhaps obvious, but when you live in a world where you see very little of yourself and your people represented, it can become very easy to feel powerless and sometimes invisible. So the moment that I read Freire for the first time, the notion that each person, as part of the world, contributes to it and therefore possesses the potential to enact change within it was a very significant one for me.

Freire explains that we contribute to the world through our use of words – and in seeking to reach out and communicate with other beings we generate dialogue – which in itself is an act of creation and making. Genuine and meaningful dialogue however, according to Freire, cannot exist in the absence of love – “profound love for the world and for people.”[i]

In Anishinaabe teachings, love – zaagidewin – is one of the gifts of the Seven Grandfathers/Grandmothers. It speaks of having an open heart, and of allowing oneself the ability to genuinely give and accept love.  Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, in referencing the works of a great Anishinaabe storyteller Basil Johnston, describes the act of story- and relationship-making among ourselves and with others as an act of love. Through the use of our words in story, by seeking to reach out in dialogue with other beings, we enact these teachings of love. He writes,

Love… is a relationship filled with respect for, patience with, and responsibilities to another person. It’s about listening and learning, even if the person you are communicating with is not doing the same. The question, undoubtedly, is how you can love another being when they are so drastically different… K’zaugin [Love] can inspire us to continue to tell each other our perspectives, share food with family members and relations, and join together in times of struggle and resistance. K’zaugin can assist us in learning how to speak to one another in our many languages and to listen, to always listen. K’zaugin is what can maintain and define our many responsibilities to one another, and to ensure that we speak to each other with honesty, commitment and truth.[ii]

In many ways this understanding of love resonates quite strongly with how I think about the work of decolonization. Decolonization comes from a place of deep and profound love. It arises out of a very human need and desire to speak our words and to reach out to other persons and beings in the ongoing creation and re-creation of the world. It recognizes that life emerges dialogically through our different connections, relations and entanglements with others. It comes from a place that understands the responsibilities of listening and telling the truth and of honouring your word even when it makes you uncomfortable.

Dr. Amy Lonetree delivering her keynote lecture during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop

Dr. Amy Lonetree delivering her keynote lecture during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop

When Dr. Amy Lonetree delivered her keynote at the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, she spoke of a decolonizing museum practice that must involve assisting Indigenous communities in addressing the legacies of historical unresolved grief. As part of this process she argues that museums have the responsibility of truth-telling, and specifically speaking the hard truths of colonization in an effort to promote critical self-awareness, healing, and understanding. She indicates that museums have the potential to become sites of decolonization by privileging Indigenous perspectives, knowledges, and worldviews. In the introductory chapter of her book, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Dr. Lonetree refers to scholar Winona Wheeler’s articulation of the process of decolonization: “Decolonization is about empowerment,” she writes, “a belief that situations can be transformed, a belief and trust in our own peoples’ values and abilities to make change.”[iii] According to this reading, decolonization is something that begins from within, perhaps through an acceptance of self-love – one that nurtures the confidence that our knowledge systems can act as sound guiding principles for ethical museum practice.

It is this deep decolonial inside that needs to be cared for. When I sat down with my friend, colleague and fellow Research Assistant Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck) for our conversation during the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop, we spoke a bit about our shared experiences as Indigenous women who work in academia, museums, and galleries in urban centres, spaces that can – and historically have – misrepresented or entirely ignored Indigenous presences and experiences. This lack of visibility can have an enormous impact, and can be quite harmful. As a young person who grew up in the Ottawa area, where my little brother and I were the only Native kids in our school, I never really saw myself or reflections of my Indigenous inside in spaces outside of our family home. My parents always made sure I knew my roots and would often tell me proudly that I came from a people of immense strength and resilience, yet for some reason or another I began to feel ashamed of who I was and just wanted to be like everyone and everything else that I saw and heard around me when I wasn’t at home. From what I’ve come to understand through conversations with other Indigenous peoples, this feeling is not uncommon, and that’s a real problem.

For what reasons would a Native kid with a strong Onkwehonwe and Anishinaabe foundation at home still feel at such an early age that in certain spaces being different meant not being heard?

In working towards positive social change, author and activist bell hooks writes of the need for efforts to be rooted in what she refers to as an ethic of love.[iv] To achieve this, hooks argues for the importance of looking critically both inward and outward to learn the truth about how systems of oppression operate. This awareness, she writes, is central to the process of love as the practice of freedom. If as Dr. Lonetree has urged, museums can uphold their responsibilities to tell the truth and address difficult knowledge and difficult history, then they perhaps have a great role to play in generating the kind of critical awareness and freedom that hooks describes. Rooted in a love ethic, a decolonial quote4museum practice may also keep future generations of Indigenous people in mind, and will aim to create spaces where they will see themselves, and not be afraid to be heard.

Anishinaabeg writer and scholar Leanne Simpson has written powerfully on Anishinaabeg-centred stories and songs of love in her recent work, Islands of Decolonial Love – a title derived from an interview with Dominican American writer Junot Diaz who spoke of a kind of love that his characters longed for – what he describes as, “the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence.”[v] If these kinds of empowering and Indigenous-centered methodologies of love can be used to understand and give voice to our experiences – as Anishinaabeg writers like Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Leanne Simpson have shown – I wonder if perhaps the same can be applied to our efforts in decolonizing museums, where we likewise aim to cultivate meaningful, genuine, and transformative dialogue.

So you can call me emotional if you want to, but I’m building trust that practices grounded in Indigenous principles have the potential to offer the kind of decolonial love that we long for, and can perhaps contribute to the ongoing creation and re-creation of a world that Paulo Freire also envisioned, one that is “more round, less ugly, and more just.”[vi]


[i] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000; Originally published 1970), 89.

[ii] Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, “K’zaugin: Storing Ourselves into Life,” in Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories, eds. Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013), 95-96.

[iii] Winona Lu-Ann Stevenson, Decolonizing Tribal Histories, PhD diss., (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), 212;  Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 9.

[iv] bell hooks, “Love as the practice of freedom,” in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York, London: Routledge, 1994), 289-298.

[v] Paula M. L. Moya, “The Search for Decolonial Love: An Interview with Junot Diaz,” Boston Review, June 26, 2012, https://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/paula-ml-moya-decolonial-love-interview-junot-d%C3%ADaz

[vi] Donaldo Macedo, “Introduction,” in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000; Originally published 1970), 26.

**Alexandra K. Nahwegahbow is a PhD student at Carleton University in the Cultural Mediations program at the Institute of Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture. She is Anishinaabe and Kanien’keha:ka, and a member of Whitefish River First Nation with roots in Kahnawake. Her research examines Indigenous visual and material culture from the Great Lakes region with a focus on childcare practices and the significance of family, community and youth. She is an emerging curator and recently completed the exhibition Temporal Re-Imaginings for Canada Council for the Arts. Alex is fascinated by stories, oral history and object agency, and has a strong interest in community engagement initiatives and the Indigenization of museum and gallery spaces.


Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop makes connections

Photo of gallery tour

Curator Alex Nahwegahbow leads workshop participants on a tour of her exhibit “Temporal Re-Imaginings.” (photo credit: Lauren Bosc)

Students, researchers, museum workers, and other members of Ottawa’s cultural communities gathered together from April 15-16, 2016 to discuss ways of “decolonizing curatorial pedagogies” at a workshop of the same name organized by Dr. Monica Patterson (Carleton University) and the Thinking through the Museum team.

The workshop included a visit to the Canadian Museum of History, student presentations on curatorial possibilities, a keynote address by Dr. Amy Lonetree (University of California, Santa Cruz), an interview with curator Alex Nahwegahbow and art educator Sylvia Dreaver (Dueck), roundtable discussions, and an Indigenous walking tour led by artist Jaime Koebel.

The full program and workshop itinerary, photo galleries, and video recordings will be available soon under the Workshops section of this website. Photos and responses can also be found by searching #decolonizingcuratorialpedagogies on Twitter!