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Royal B.C. Museum reviews sale of Indigenous art in gift shop after complaint

The Royal B.C. Museum and the Royal B.C. Museum Foundation are reviewing policies and guidelines around the sale of Indigenous art at the museum gift shop following a scathing rebuke from a world-renowned First Nations artist.
Richard Hunt RBCM
Kwakiutl artist Richard Hunt posted a criticism of First Nations-themed artwork at the Royal B.C. Museum gift shop.

The Royal B.C. Museum and the Royal B.C. Museum Foundation are reviewing policies and guidelines around the sale of Indigenous art at the museum gift shop following a scathing rebuke from a world-renowned First Nations artist.

In an online post that garnered a lot of “likes” and was widely shared, Kwakiutl artist Richard Hunt captioned a photo of Indigenous artwork at the museum shop as “Fake First Nations culture being sold at the Royal B.C. Museum. Reconciliation ha!”

In an interview, Hunt said the display of plates, bowls, playing cards, miniature totem poles and other things with West Coast First Nation designs caught his eye and screamed money grab.

“[The shop] is like a junkyard now, I hate to say it,” he said, noting he believes there’s simply too much licensed product being reproduced — sometimes by non-Indigenous artists — with the permission of First Nations rather than original work being done by the artists.

Hunt said he has seen that kind of art in tourist shops around the region, and while that gets under his skin — he believes First Nations should not be licensing their culture away — he argued the museum shop ought to be held to a higher standard.

“They talk about repatriation and reconciliation, but then you go into the gift shop and they have all that stuff,” he said.

Joanne Orr, deputy chief executive of the RBCM, said Hunt might have a point.

“What Richard says is right. We can’t be saying one thing on one side and doing something completely contrary to undermine those values and the ethical framework we try to work within,” she said.

Orr said the museum is taking the issue very seriously, but noted it does not actually run the gift shop.

The Royal B.C. Museum Foundation runs the shop and is responsible for what sits on its shelves.

Orr said the museum acted quickly after hearing of the outcry following Hunt’s online post, and has met with the foundation to discuss how the retail items are sourced.

“Our starting point is around ethical sourcing and understanding what that means. We have to explore that and find out what ethical sourcing and retailing looks like,” she said.

Orr said the museum does not dictate terms to the shop; however, she believes the store should reflect the values of the museum.

The museum recently announced it was removing two First Nations poles in Thunderbird Park to be repatriated to the communities that inspired their carving.

Christa Cato, buyer for the Royal Museum Shop, said there are guidelines that dictate what it will sell. She said that decades ago they insisted artists be involved in the retailing process, get paid and approve of the use of their work.

“We drew the line with suppliers, that they had to be using Indigenous, B.C. First Nations artists, that had to give approval, be involved in the process and receive a royalty, and that is still the policy,” she said. “Anything we have in the shop has fallen under those guidelines.”

Cato said she knows there are those in the artists community who take issue with the guidelines and companies they use, but she said when it comes to whether or not the shop’s wares are “fake First Nations culture,” she’s not one to judge. “The best people to answer that question are the artists whose work it is.”

Since Hunt’s post, Cato said they have undertaken an audit of suppliers and required assurances the work that is supplied falls in line with shop policies.

“If they can’t assure us, then we will not proceed,” she said. “They have to comply with that policy or it’s not a product we will sell.

“We take this very seriously. As we move forward we all have to do better, we have to communicate better and do a better job in our due diligence.”

Hunt believes there is an answer in establishing laws around the use of Indigenous culture.

“We need government help. The laws of Canada are not written to protect Native people, it’s written for Canadians, but we need this entrenched in law for us,” he said. “I for one have always [said] I don’t think any one of our chiefs should be allowed to [license] our culture away. Our culture belongs to us, you don’t give it away.

“It has to be written into Canadian law that our culture belongs to us and then we can stop this.”

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