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Museums and Reconciliation


Museums have long played a role in cultural genocide. Can they also play a part in reconciliation?

In a recent work-trip to Canada, I was pleasantly surprised to see the way in which so many museums were addressing 'decolonization' and 'reconciliation' as a major strategic direction. Some had completely re-thought the way they presented their permanent collection (Canadian Museum of History and the National Gallery of Canada), others were creating new Indigenous curator positions or re-looking at their governance for more systemic change , and others were addressing exclusion in the galleries-ensuring that work by Indigenous artists is present and visible and that Indigenous languages also find their place on the walls, online, in audio and in publications. The really progressive ones are tackling all of the above.

Although museums are at different stages in their thinking and action about this, I got the sense that there was a (long overdue) but real transformation happening in Canadian museums. I don't think Canada is yet by any means the poster country for museums and reconciliation - there are still many instances of mis-truths, omissions, appropriations and systemic disempowerment- but I do recognize the increasing self-reflexivity among Canadian museums compared to when I was last working with them 8 years ago.

I attribute this heightened awareness of the complicity and responsibility of museums to the incredible work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2008-2015) which brought renewed public attention to the concept of cultural genocide and Canada's crimes in this regard. (Naturally indigenous people were already well aware of the concept). The TRC's final report defines cultural genocide as 'the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group- through destroying political and social institutions, seizing land, forcibly moving and restricting movement of populations, banning languages and spiritual practices, persecuting spiritual leaders and confiscating cultural objects (many of which of course ended up in museums). The TRC specifically called out museums and archives in its Calls to Action 67-70, making clear the specific role of museums in the process of reconciliation. These appear to being taken seriously on a government level, but also, equally importantly, seem to have worked their way into the consciousness of the largely white museum administrators, curators, and educators across the country.

The TRCC speaks about reconciliation as establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, based on a truthful awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change. It also refers to solutions from Traditional Knowledge Keepers and Elders with their long history of dealing with conflict and harm using spiritual ceremonies, peacemaking practices and stories.

Museums can support all of these things- being truthful about the provenance of their collections and the narratives they present; providing space for stories of harm, hurt and healing; saying a heartfelt 'sorry' for the parts they have played and taking real, systemic action to transform- fundamentally by making sure Indigenous people have decision-making power and influence when it comes to all aspects of museums. It also behooves museums in Canada and elsewhere to look to different sources of knowledge when it comes to public and learning programmes- following the lead of some schools in drawing on traditional knowledge within curriculum. Most of all though, museums must recognized that they are tainted places- perhaps irrevocably so, and must work hard at re-building trust with Indigenous and colonised peoples in order to move from truth, to reconciliation.

We can also look beyond museums. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes, in Articles 5, 11, 13, 15, 16, 23 and 31, the rights of Indigenous people to maintain their own cultural institutions; cultural traditions, heritage and expressions; tradtional knowledge; cultural sites; creative practice; language; oral traditions and writing systems; and media. If museums are too tainted- can they use their considerable resources to support new centres of culture and knowledge that aren't? The development of the Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg is a good example of this. We need more of these kinds of initiatives around the world.

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