Report from association provides road map to decolonizing museums

Tuesday, October 11th, 2022 3:00pm



“We are going to have to change, whether it’s systems or policies, practices, or governance. We are going to make those changes.” — Dorota Blumczyǹska, a CMA board director and CEO at the Manitoba Museum
By Crystal St.Pierre
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A 128-page report from the reconciliation council of the Canadian Museums Association, titled Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Museums, contains standards for museums to meet to turn the page on their colonial past, and recommendations for the inclusion and representation of Indigenous peoples within museums and cultural centres.

The report is the CMA’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #67, which asks the federal government to provide funding to the CMA to review, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, Canadian museum policies and practices and make recommendations for the sector to become more compliant with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

“What the report is intended to do is provide a starting point for Canadian museums to implement the principles of UNDRIP as it relates to major museums or small privately owned ones,” said Grant Anderson, a member of the CMA’s reconciliation council.

“Long term, this is going to be a really good thing. I’ve been on the band wagon for years saying if we want to do something to develop prosperity in Indigenous communities in this country, let’s look at our history…It can bring pride back to communities. This is going to be a really good thing.”

Anderson was born in Selkirk, Man., and is a member of the Red River Métis Nation. He has written children’s books and is a senior director at the Manitoba Métis Federation. He is also responsible for the development of the newly-created Métis Nation Heritage Centre in downtown Winnipeg.

“This (report) is the road map,” he said.

The report is comprehensive. There are, for example, 30 Standards for Museums to meet to come into compliance with UNDRIP. Some of these standards stress the requirement of repatriation of everything from cultural belongings, ancestral remains, songs, seeds, language recordings, maps, and materials related to traditional knowledges, and intellectual property. “The recognition that Indigenous Peoples have intellectual sovereignty over all material created by or about them,” Standard 3 reads.

Still other standards require museums to develop an understanding of the different decision making process and authoritative structures in Indigenous communities, and to use Indigenous-driven systems of evaluation and assessment to measure the success of this work.

Then there are 10 recommendations to help guide that work.

Anderson said he’s particularly interested in two of those recommendations: One meant to bolster financial support for Indigenous cultural centres and Indigenous-led national heritage organizations, and the other for the development “under the authoritative guidance of Indigenous experts, organizations, and communities” of a cohesive collections strategy “to identify and improve access to collections both nationally and internationally.”

“What I’m hoping for is, we can develop a partnership, a relationship, an atmosphere of caring and sharing for these artifacts so that maybe sometimes they go on exhibit in the communities and maybe they’re kept in safe and secure storage facilities at other times,” Anderson said. “There’s going to be a lot of figuring out what to do … but I think the idea of developing partnerships between First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities and the museums in this country is the solution. That is the key.”

Repatriation of artifacts would start with a database of items in storage that is accessible to communities, said Dorota Blumczyǹska, a CMA board director and CEO at the Manitoba Museum.

The database would house photos and information about these various items, as well as how they came to be in the care of each facility. Communities could then look through them and see which ones belong to them.

“The museum has the opportunity to support communities in that reclamation process, but also continue to learn from the communities to build capacity both ways, so it’s reciprocal and it helps increase everyone’s understanding about the historical significance of these artifacts,” Blumczyǹska said.

“The more that we understand one another, become invested in each other’s heritages and stories and histories, we can deepen our relationships. I think that is so much of the truth part before we move into reconciliation.”

Historically, Blumczyǹska said, some artifacts were brought to the museums or other cultural institutions for safe keeping by community members. These facilities offer storage spaces with humidity and temperature control, which allows for ideal storage of artifacts.

However, once those artifacts were placed in the institution’s care, it was often difficult for communities to access them.

“To do this work well, it has to be led by communities and we will ensure that, on the museum end, that barriers are removed and that we do not create obstacles to moving this work forward,” she said.

“We are going to have to change, whether it’s systems or policies, practices, or governance. We are going to make those changes. We will always be looking to Indigenous communities to guide the process.”

Blumczyǹska said, “I think a lot of us have some level of trepidation that we want to be careful that the work that we do does not do further damage. That we don’t embark on this work through such a lens that doesn’t centre the voices and the desires and needs of community.”

Anderson points to other recommendations in the report, specifically 3, 4 and 9.

Recommendation 3 speaks to the need of sustainable resources for Indigenous cultural centres and Indigenous-led national heritage organizations to support community goals of self-determination.

Recommendation 4 calls for the National Museum Policy and Museums Assistance Program to be revised to support and enforce the principles of UNDRIP in their structures and delivery.

Recommendation 9 calls for the establishment of a national UNDRIP professional development strategy, the goal of which would be to assist museums in implementing UNDRIP at each level of their operations and within all museum positions.”

And, Anderson is calling for compensation to the museums for the dollars spent to gain the artifacts.

He tells the story of an individual who, in the early 1800s, travelled across Canada gathering artifacts, which were sold to a museum 125 years later for $2 million.

“The museums shouldn’t be punished for doing that good work,” he said, adding the museum should receive compensation from the government when those artifacts are returned to the communities of their origin.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.