Representing culture

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McGill Reporter
February 10, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 10
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Representing culture

| Most Canadians' exposure to Aboriginal cultures, it's probably fair to say, is limited to artifacts they've viewed on display in museums.

However positive an educational experience this might represent — and traditionally museums have served as the most accessible bridge between academia and the public — it is not a benign experience. This according to a panel assembled by the Program in Canadian Ethnic Studies and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Tackling the topic, "Preservation or Appropriation: A Discussion of the Relations between Aboriginal Cultures and Canadian Museums," were Kristen Norget and Greg Brass of the Department of Anthropology, Gail Valiskakis, director of research for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in Ottawa, and photographer Jeff Thomas, guest curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull. Some 80 students gathered in the Leacock Building to hear their thoughts.

The display of objects in a museum has many ramifications. In the first place, pointed out Thomas, attending an exhibition is not simply a passive exercise.

"How do we bring our own experiences to the museum?" he asked. "We must try to understand not only how the past informs the present, but how the present informs the past."

This is an important issue because the contents of a museum display represent choices regarding what is to be presented, in what manner and context, and how those contents are to be explained.

"I'm interested in how conceptions of what culture is are used in the symbolization of others," stated Professor Norget. "The use of objects to embody a culture simplifies complex notions of who and what a people are."

Culture is far more vast than could ever be portrayed by tangible artifacts. Yet in the museum setting, this is frequently all that is depicted.

Museums tend to neglect, for example, the oral stories and lore passed on between generations to explain a people's way of seeing their world and ensure the survival of traditions.

Norget went on to point out that collecting material property is the hallmark of Western society, and since it is most frequently a Western context in which Aboriginal cultures are presented in museums, this, in turn, informs how those cultures come to be perceived. Therein lies a serious question concerning the right of the museum to represent others.

This question lies at the heart of the struggle for control over cultural identity, control which, Valiskakis argued, has been taken from Aboriginal peoples.

"Everything," she said, "is tied to how culture is represented and appropriated. How it's represented affects how we understand a people. We see Aboriginal culture in the way the dominant culture has chosen to represent it. And the easiest way to appropriate it is through material goods."

Brass concurred. "Appropriation is an issue of the control, ownership and coherence of images." Indeed, the conference was marked by a good deal of agreement, and more discussion about the manner in which the museum appropriates than about how it preserves.

It seems, however, that museums' sensitivity to Aboriginal peoples and their right to have a say in how their cultural heritage is presented is increasing. For instance, just this past January, Calgary's Glenbow Museum returned 251 sacred objects to their rightful Aboriginal owners.

Thomas has explored the Museum of Civilization's photo archives, and combined historical photos with the work of contemporary First Nations artists, to create an exhibition that reflects an important record of Aboriginal heritage that doesn't depend on the appropriation of sacred objects. Thus it may still be possible for museums to educate and preserve without appropriating.

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