The Canadian Museums Association recommends 10 ways to decolonize the heritage sector
The Canadian Museums Association calls for legislation, funding and a coherent national strategy to support Indigenous-led reconciliation in the museum sector.
The association detailed the work needed in a report released Tuesday that includes 10 recommendations to help foster Indigenous self-determination at all levels of museum operations.
« Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Museums » urges legislation to support the repatriation of Indigenous property and ancestral remains, and dedicated funding for the repatriation process. It was funded by the Department of Heritage and responds to a call from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review museum policies.
Highlighting her area’s deep legacy of colonization, association president Heather George said our understanding of history is richer when Indigenous peoples have authority over how they are portrayed.
Yet she acknowledged that there is uncertainty in some institutions about how to speak to communities about artifacts that have a painful history: « the fear of doing wrong, the fear of hurting people. »
There are also concerns that it will destroy collections, she acknowledged, but noted that there are many ways to deal with controversial Indigenous material without removing it completely from the public sphere, such as creating a replica for the museum.
But delaying action risks ongoing damage, warned George, whose paternal family is Mohawk.
« Inaction has a cost, » said George, curator of Indigenous history at the Canadian Museum of History and guest curator at the Woodland Cultural Center on the site of a former residential school, the Mohawk Institute, in Brantford, New York. Ontario.
« From the beginning, from the beginning, Indigenous peoples have said that part of our healing and part of our way of dealing with the realities of colonization is to access our material culture and our knowledge and to bring together all these parts.
The report also lists 30 ways museums can support decolonization, including recognizing that Indigenous peoples have intellectual sovereignty over all material created by or about them and developing hiring policies that take into account the knowledge and of the indigenous experience.
According to the report, a key step is for museums to adopt “meaningful Indigenous governance with decision-making power, not just advisory bodies.” When items are repatriated, Indigenous rights holders need to determine how best to care for them.
George said she is optimistic that at least the recommendation of federal legislation is near, pointing to Bill C-15 – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which received the Royal Assent in June 2021. The bill requires the federal government to prepare an action plan to achieve the UNDRIP goals within two years, June 21, 2023.
Victorian artist Lou-Ann Neel, who sat on a “reconciliation council” that guided the CMA research, said the findings come after other studies have already made similar pleas. But she lamented the lack of action to remedy poorly obtained material and mend indigenous ties.
There is also a need for more information on the extent of exactly what museums have in their possession – legitimate and otherwise, she added, recounting her shock years ago at coming across sculptures sold commercially by his great-great-grandfather Charlie James and grandmother Ellen Neel in a museum in Victoria.
At the time, she knew nothing of the long artistic tradition behind them, she said, and has since heard similar stories of Indigenous people feeling disconnected from the work and lives of their ancestors.
« So much was taken that families didn’t even know what they were looking for because they didn’t know what was missing, because they never heard of it in the first place, » Neel said, originally from Alert Bay, British Columbia.
« A lot of what’s happening is that people will search under their current tribal name, and they’ll find 10 to 15 other ways to spell their tribal name. So that’s also a barrier.
The report traces a « collecting frenzy » during the 1800s and early 1900s that included sacred cultural property, grave goods and human remains. The weight of those actions is still being felt today, Neel said.
“Some of the stuff that happened in museums was very legitimately made or bought or donated,” Neel acknowledged.
“(But) we have things sitting in there that are 100 years old and don’t belong in the museum.”
The CMA represents more than 2,700 museums ranging from small volunteer-run organizations to national institutions.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 27, 2022.
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