“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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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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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!

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Dr. Amy Lonetree to speak at Carleton University

“Indigenizing Museums and the Move Toward Decolonization:
Successes and Ongoing Challenges”
April 15, 2016       5:30-8pm (light refreshments provided)      Loeb C164
Carleton University      Ottawa, Ontario

Amy Lonetree

(Photo provided by Amy Lonetree)

Dr. Amy Lonetree will be giving a keynote lecture at Carleton University as a part of the Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies workshop organized by the Thinking through the Museum project team and spearheaded by Dr. Monica Patterson from Carleton University.

Dr. Lonetree’s lecture examines the current state of contemporary exhibition practice with, by, and for Native Americans at both national and tribal museums. Central to her analysis is exploring how museums can serve as sites of decolonization by privileging Indigenous knowledge and worldview, challenging the stereotypical representations of Native people produced in the past, and discussing the hard truths of colonization in exhibitions in an effort to promote healing and understanding. Addressing this history is an important part of a decolonizing museum practice, and her paper will explore how we can extend our understanding of the potential of museums to be “sites of conscience” and forums to address difficult knowledges.

Dr. Amy Lonetree is an enrolled citizen of Ho-Chunk Nation and is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002. Her scholarly work focuses on the representation of Native American history and memory in national and tribal museums, and she has conducted research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the British Museum, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Minnesota, and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways in Michigan. Her publications include, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (University of North Carolina Press, 2012); a co-edited book with Amanda J. Cobb, The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations (University of Nebraska Press, 2008); and a co-authored volume, People of the Big Voice: Photographs of Ho-Chunk Families by Charles Van Schaick, 1879-1942 (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2011). She is currently working on a visual history of the Ho-Chunk Nation from 1879-1960.

To reserve a FREE ticket to this event, please visit the ticket page here.

Coming soon: full workshop itinerary, highlights, and outcomes for Decolonizing Curatorial Pedagogies available here.

Follow #decolonizingcuratorialpedagogies on Twitter!

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