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Western Canada: Decolonization Tops the Agenda of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum

Good morning! Wendy Cox here today.

On Saturday, the directors of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum will gather for their annual retreat aimed, in part, at charting a course for an endless journey. Decolonization is the first item on the agenda – how to advance a process to address the museum’s representation of the past and the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“There is no place to go,” Jean Teillet, lawyer, artist, author, director of the Glenbow and great-grandniece of Métis leader Louis Riel, told Carrie Tait today. “There is no final destination.”

The Glenbow is in the midst of a $179 million renovation and revitalization for the institution, a concrete fortress built in downtown Calgary in the 1970s. The museum recently established a decolonization committee to guide the effort.

Nicholas Bell, president of the Glenbow, noted that decolonization is relatively new for museums.

“It’s an extremely messy subject,” he said. “The work has only just begun and will never be finished.”

Decolonization involves philosophical and physical changes. On the one hand, modern museums are increasingly open to returning artifacts to their communities of origin. On May 19, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England, presented regalia that belonged to Isapo-muxika, the 19th-century Blackfoot leader known as Chief Crowfoot, to a delegation from the Siksika Nation in Alberta. . The items will be displayed at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, where Treaty 7 was signed and where Chief Crowfoot died.

Bell, who believes decolonization can affect everything from a museum’s human resources policies to its architecture, wants to “demystify the museum,” making it a place where everyone feels like they belong, and the renovation aims to solve this problem.

In British Columbia, the NDP government decided that the best way forward for its iconic museum was to start all over again. Last week the government released a heavily redacted business plan for its plans to demolish the Royal BC Museum and build a new facility for $789 million. The government said the decision was based on assessments that it would be cheaper to rebuild than renovate the downtown building, built in 1968 across from the BC Legislative Assembly, as it was. of disrepair.

But B.C. Culture Minister Melanie Mark indicated last fall that massive changes were needed to the facility that went beyond the physical structure. The museum was at the center of controversy in 2020, when Marsha Lederman of The Globe wrote about allegations of a toxic and racist work environment made by Lucy Bell, who stepped down as head of the First Nations and Labor Department. repatriation program. The disturbing experiences she shared sparked investigations and the departure of the CEO.

Starting last year, Marsha wrote, the museum began closing galleries: Gone was the First Peoples gallery, with its lifeless Indigenous artifacts behind glass. Gone was Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC, a more recent exhibit that served as something of a corrective. Gone was Becoming BC – including Old Town, a folkloric walk through British Columbia’s history.

Ms. Mark, who is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree and Ojibway herself, wrote in a column in January that the Royal BC Museum “has a duty to preserve the past with an equal responsibility to accurately reflect a timeline of our common history. ”

The nearly $1 billion price tag for the BC project has become endless fodder for provincial Liberals, who have repeatedly questioned why the province would spend that kind of money at a time when the system The province’s health care system appears to be in crisis, with one million people without a family doctor and rural emergency rooms closing due to understaffing.

But the government argues that at the heart of the vision for the new building is an effort to more accurately reflect the province’s relationship and history with the Indigenous peoples who live there.

The British Columbia government avoids comparisons, saying the museum in Victoria has a larger and more diverse collection and serves more visitors than the Glenbow. Upgrading and repairing the existing RBCM would cost more than building a state-of-the-art museum from scratch, the provincial government argues.

The Glenbow was one step ahead of dozens of museums being decolonized. He has re-examined his approach to artifacts and art from non-European cultures since missing an exhibit of Indigenous artifacts in 1988, as part of the city’s celebrations for the Winter Olympics. Among concerns, the Mohawk Nations sued the Glenbow for displaying a fake face mask; and the Lubicon Lake Nation boycotted the exhibit.

The Glenbow, in response, stepped up its consultation efforts and worked with Alberta to pass legislation that would allow it to repatriate items to the Blackfoot and Cree.

Jennifer Kramer, curator and professor at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, said museums should no longer think of themselves as giant display cases containing treasures from the past. Instead, she said, they should consider places active today that inspire the future.

Museums should create a space for artists to study objects and community members to hold ceremonies, for example. Objects should be “staged” and remain connected to their home communities, Ms Kramer said.

“You have to whistle,” she said, noting that museums can loan objects to home communities to expand access. “Button blankets should be worn.”

This is Western Canada’s weekly newsletter written by BC Editor Wendy Cox and head of the Alberta office James Keller. If you read this on the web, or if it was forwarded to you by someone else, you can subscribe to this and all Globe newsletters here.