Heritage is the tangible embodiment of intangible historical, cultural, aesthetic and social values. Consequently, it is not an absolute entity but a cultural abstract that may be contested and interpreted in many different ways. Museums are one kind of institution charged with creating and commemorating a select version of the past. Certain aspects of the historical record are singled out while other areas of interest are submerged. The predominant historical narrative established in Canada was national. With such a national focus, museums have highlighted certain key events that justified the creation and expansion of Canada. The depiction of Aboriginal cultures in museums is a direct reflection of how society has attempted to fit them into a particular slot of its national memory. The focus of this examination is to explore the changing trends in the representation of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures by North American museums, particularly in Canada.
Even though the collection of art objects and natural specimens has a long precedent among the Chinese and Japanese, public museums are a European cultural phenomenon. Beginning during the age of exploration in the sixteenth century, objects deemed as curiosities or trophies were gathered from around the globe. The earliest museum-like collections were private collections of natural and cultural artifacts known as “cabinets of curiosities.” With the exception of scholarly collections, these collections were usually haphazardly organized and contained a jumble of various objects. The gradual incorporation of these collections into the first European museums in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led them to be handled and interpreted differently. The perspective and views presented and perpetuated by museums was, with rare exceptions, primarily Eurocentric. From their earliest representations in museums, Aboriginals were presented as a very different cultural entity. They were perceived as presenting an earlier, primitive stage of development 1.
North American museums have developed very differently from museums in Europe, yet they have followed the European precedent in their representation of Aboriginal peoples. It was assumed in the nineteenth century that the intellectual and technological inferiority of Native cultures would doom them to eventual extinction. This belief in the eventual disappearance of Aboriginal peoples was seen to validate the creation and existence of museum collections. North American museums saw themselves as stewards for the material culture of Aboriginal peoples 2.
The perception of Aboriginal cultures as inferior and disappearing also influenced collection methods and object selection. Authentic “Indians” were represented in museums as including all those traditions and technologies that existed before the arrival of Europeans. To present such change as European influence on the construction and style of material culture of artifacts was perceived as loss of culture 3. Since museums perceived themselves as guardians of Aboriginal culture, they wanted to preserve and present what they perceived as authentic representations of these peoples. Few exhibitions about Aboriginal peoples related to the contemporary world. The result was a representation of Aboriginal cultures as frozen in time and as isolated remnants of the past. Further developments and adaptation to present circumstances were neglected 4.
Until the early 1990s, the installations in most museums continued to use cultural materials from Aboriginal peoples as visual artifacts to accompany dioramas of traditional cultures. These older displays represented Aboriginal peoples in various aspects of daily life. Little effort was made to indicate the deeper cultural meaning of cultural materials. Painting, beadwork, or quillwork was displayed without cultural context, merely stressing technique. Displays rarely included Aboriginal perspectives and the people represented had no role in interpreting or participating in the decision about which collections were shown or what messages were conveyed 5.
Over the course of this long history of representation of Aboriginal cultures, attitudes only began to change in the 1960s. However, it was not until the 1990s that genuine substantive change took place 6. A process of re-evaluation and reassessing of attitudes towards Aboriginal peoples permitted such trends to be broken in the redevelopment of older galleries and new museums. Canada’s Task Force on Museums and First Peoples, winding up in 1992, prompted museum curators to share their exhibition authority with representative communities. The Task Force was established in response to the boycott of a 1988 Glenbow Museum exhibition, The Spirit Sings by the Lubicon Cree of Northern Alberta. They took exception to the fact that the main sponsor of the exhibit was the same oil company with whom they were engaged in a land dispute. The Task Force, which included representatives from the First Nations Assembly and the Canadian Museums Association, developed a set of guidelines for the development of future exhibits. The issues raised were organized into three categories: increased involvement of Aboriginal peoples in the interpretation of their culture and history by cultural institutions; improved access to museum collections by Aboriginal peoples; and the repatriation of artifacts and human remains from museum collections. The Task Force acknowledged that Aboriginal peoples own or have moral claim to their heritage, hence they should participate fully in its presentation and in development of policies 7.
Museums are beginning to work with Aboriginal communities to collaborate on research, exhibits, programs and collection management. New representational methods alter the traditional power and responsibilities of curators and influence what will be selected for exhibition. Exhibits resulting from the consultation process are noticeably different than those presented in the past. Some museums are up-dating their exhibits, which had been organized around the ethnographic past, by including contemporary materials and demonstrating the cultural perseverance of Aboriginal peoples 8. There has been no lack of good faith on the part of museum officials and Aboriginal communities in initiating change. It may appear that changes are gradual, but it is important to note that there are various challenges inherent in moving from policy to practice 9.
An alternative forum of discussion and dissemination of knowledge has been the development of Aboriginal-run institutions. The participation of local Aboriginal cultures at the Head Smashed In facility in Alberta and Wanuskewin Centre in Saskatoon demonstrates the value of including local Aboriginal culture at all stages of interpretation, development and program delivery. Cultural continuity is demonstrated by continued use of gallery space along with the practice of displaying traditional artifacts alongside contemporary artwork 10. As these centres develop and grow, they will certainly continue to be a new and vital part of the cultural landscape.
This review is not an exhaustive examination of either the history and range of exhibition types or associated ideological statements representing Aboriginal cultures. Discussion and debate will continue to further analyze how museums interpret and exhibit Aboriginal culture. Yet, many challenges have been overcome during the past decade, allowing partnership and collaboration between museums and Aboriginal peoples. It is recognized that Aboriginal peoples should be full partners in any museum exhibition and any program dealing with their heritage. New displays differ fundamentally from older models, since they now include the voices and ideas of Aboriginal peoples. New policy initiatives and a better working relationship among museums and Aboriginal peoples are an important benefit in the remaking of traditional museums. Museums and cultural centres have the potential to assume a new role, no longer the temples of an elite class, but multicultural centres fostering ongoing dialogue.
4 Doxtator, Deborah. Autumn 1988. “The Home of the Indian Culture and Other Stories in the Museum.” Muse VI (3): 26-29.
5 Maurer, Evan. 2000. “Presenting the American Indian: From Europe to America.” In The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Culture. Michael Ames, ed. 15-28.
9 Ames, Michael. 2000. “Are Changing Representation of First Peoples in Canadian Museums and Galleries Challenging the Curatorial Prerogative?” In The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Culture. Michael Ames, ed. 73-88.