“We are not the museum we wanted to be. And we’re not the museum we should be,” Royal B.C. Museum Acting CEO Dan Musyka was quoted as saying June 29 in these pages.
His comments were in response to results of an independent investigation and staff survey that found Indigenous staff have experienced discrimination at the museum, and museum leadership failed to manage the environment fostering discriminatory behaviour.
In another June 29 story in these pages, about calls to cancel Canada Day, Winnipeg Indigenous writer David Robertson is quoted as saying: “I think we really need to question, what country are we living in? Because I don’t think it’s the country that we think it is, or that we thought it was.”
Two similar quotes by different people from different backgrounds and different areas of the country speaking in response to different events.
But they address one underlying issue.
The Royal B.C. Museum’s investigation and internal inclusion and psychological safety survey were launched after the museum’s head of the Indigenous collections and repatriation department resigned in June 2020. In her resignation speech, Lucy Bell, a member of the Haida Nation, spoke of a culture of racism and discrimination at the museum. The museum released a summary of the investigation in a report that also summarized the survey results.
The calls to cancel this year’s Canada Day celebrations came after hundreds of undocumented graves were discovered on the grounds of former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan. The discoveries provide further evidence of widespread abuse at the schools. In this case, residential-school, church and political leadership failed to manage the environment that fostered the abuse for more than a century. They permitted and even encouraged it.
Museums mirror the community. What is found in the galleries and collections of the Royal B.C. Museum is not just a sampling of B.C.’s cultural and natural history but a reinforcement of our community values, priorities, preferences and preoccupations through time.
Many museum collections were amassed during the course of empire and colonization. Our provincial museum is no exception. It has, for example, Indigenous collections, which Bell oversaw until her resignation. Many of those artifacts and specimens were taken and kept from B.C. First Nations communities, reinforcing colonial power, social and political relationships.Similarly, what happens behind the scenes at the museum reflects what happens in our streets, businesses, schools and universities and political institutions. Our museum is Canada and B.C. writ small.
But over the last decade, the global museum community has been debating what museums are. The industry has defined “museum” since the 1970s as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
The definition is straightforward, but it ignores much of what museums do. It overlooks the social, economic and political roles museums play within their communities and the different models that museums now operate under.
A proposed and contested new definition describes museums as “democratising, inclusive and
polyphonic spaces” that “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.” This, advocates say, better defines the 21st-century museum.
A quick survey of the debate indicates that such a museum is a social, political, economic and environmental force. Such a museum, it seems, recognizes the need to be accessible by marginalized and overlooked communities. This means engaging with and including those communities and their stories in its galleries, its work and its workers.
A modern museum confronts the past and tells its difficult, controversial and ugly stories. It presents and grapples with the issues its communities are struggling with. It also promotes community, connection, health and well-being.
The Royal B.C. Museum is beginning its own modernization. New facilities are planned, core galleries are to be replaced with exhibits better reflecting the voices and history of all of B.C.’s peoples. The agency’s service plan specifies advancing reconciliation by working closely with Indigenous communities seeking the return of ancestral remains and cultural objects to their communities. The museum’s mandate letter lists reconciliation, equity and anti-racism among the agency’s priorities.
Additional work focuses on the human side — training staff to build an inclusive culture, aligning operations with the principles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, and better resourcing the Indigenous collections and repatriation department.
As the museum undertakes to bring itself fully into the 21st century, so, too, is the broader community needing to modernize and further reconciliation in our streets, businesses, schools, universities and political institutions.
Musyka and Robertson may have been addressing different specifics, but essentially they were saying the same thing.
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