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.”
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.
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. 
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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. 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. 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.”
 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
 Phillips, Ruth B.: Museum Pieces. p169
** 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.