Decolonization is the first item on the agenda for the Glenbow Museum’s directors as they gather at an annual retreat Saturday.
While the broader goal of this endeavour is to shift away from a Eurocentric framework, the specific targets of the Glenbow are not yet defined. The museum has, for example, repatriated objects to communities and added more diverse voices to its board; but decolonization for such institutions is more of a continuous process than a set checklist, according to experts.
The Glenbow, which is in the midst of a $120-million renovation at its headquarters, a concrete fortress built in downtown Calgary in the 1970s, recently created a decolonization committee to guide the effort.
“There’s no place to get to,” said Jean Teillet, a lawyer, artist, author, Glenbow director, and great-grand niece of Métis leader Louis Riel. “There’s no final destination.”
The Glenbow’s renovation and revitalization plans, which have a combined budget of $175-million, have become political fodder in neighbouring British Columbia. Its provincial government last month unveiled plans to tear down the Royal BC Museum and build a $789-million replacement, as it pursues decolonization.
The B.C. government bushes off comparisons, arguing Victoria’s museum 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 government argues.
Together, the Glenbow and the RBCM illustrate the challenges in decolonization, especially for institutions housed in aging infrastructure: There are multiple avenues organizations can take, but there is no finish line.
Nicholas Bell, the Glenbow’s president, noted decolonization is relatively new for museums.
“It is a supremely messy topic,” he said. “The work is both just beginning and will never be completed.”
Decolonization involves philosophical and physical changes. For one, modern museums are increasingly open to returning artifacts to their original communities. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England, on May 19 handed over regalia that once belonged to Isapo-muxika, the 19th century Blackfoot leader known as Chief Crowfoot, to a delegation from Siksika Nation in Alberta. The items will be displayed at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, where Treaty 7 was signed and where Crowfoot died.
But while decolonization embraces repatriation, it extends beyond that experts say.
Mr. Bell, who says he 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. The renovation will help address this, with the addition of an open-air lobby and natural light.
Further, JR Shaw’s family earlier this year donated $35-million to the Glenbow, allowing the museum to eliminate general admission fees. (The Glenbow had previously nixed fees for Indigenous peoples.) By doing away with the financial barrier, the makeup of the audience is expected to diversify. The age, race and class of visitors will change.
In doing so, the types of exhibitions the museum’s clientele craves will also change, forcing decolonizing museums to rethink their collections and curators. A new audience will also affect a museum’s physical design. Perhaps, for example, art will hang lower, closer to eye-level for women and children rather than men of European descent, Ms. Teillet said.
When considering how to display an item from another culture, decolonizing museums should consult with the item’s community of origin, experts said. This gives the museum a better shot at providing proper context and caring for the item in a respectful way. Mr. Bell said displays at decolonizing museums should reflect what people from an item’s original home think about that piece, too.
The Glenbow, which sits on Treaty 7, had a head start on scores of museums undergoing decolonization. It has been re-examining its approach to objects and art from non-European cultures since it flubbed an exhibition of Indigenous items in 1988, as part of the city’s celebrations for the Winter Olympics. Among the concerns, Mohawk nations sued the Glenbow for displaying a False Face Mask; and the Lubicon Lake Nation boycotted exhibit.
The Glenbow, in response, increased its consultation effort and worked with Alberta to pass legislation that would allow it to repatriate items to Blackfoot and Cree peoples.
Jennifer Kramer, a curator and associate professor at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, said museums should no longer think of themselves as giant display cases holding treasures from the past. Instead, she said, they should envision active places today that inspire the future. Museums should create space for artists to study objects and community members to perform ceremonies, for example. Objects need to be “enacted” and stay connected to their home communities, Prof. Kramer said.
“Whistles need to be blown,” she said, noting museums can loan objects to communities of origin to broaden access. “Button blankets need to be worn.”
Decolonization can, indeed, be costly, Prof. Kramer said. But connection to one’s culture can help with healing and wellness, as decolonization is about control over identity and human rights, she said.
“I would argue that these are dollars well-spent,” she said, referring to the large bills of such endeavours.
And while the price tag for the RBCM replacement draws criticism from some, the B.C. government argues it is the most cost effective way to achieve its goals. It said the museum is not seismically sound, does not meet building and accessibility standards. The new facility will represent the largest “cultural investment” in the province’s history, according to the government.
“Renovation and repair also wouldn’t meet project objectives which include preserving and protecting B.C.’s heritage; educating the public about B.C.’s cultural, social and natural history; advancing Truth and Reconciliation and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People; and creating a world-class provincial asset for generations to come,” the government said in a statement.
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