Who and what belongs behind the glass case?
When I was asked to edit this issue of Curious I knew that it would come with challenges. It is impossible to ignore the pain that comes along with an institution such as the Royal BC Museum and Archives, or any museum. It is also impossible to ignore the pride, happiness and spirit of revival that is imbued in collections such as the one at this institution. And with that knowledge I knew that I had to seek out both sides of the experiences that the Indigenous people of Canada have with museums.
I have been working on and off in museums for over nine years. I am Cree on my mother’s side and mixed-blood Cree, Scottish, Irish and Belgian on my father’s side. Whenever I walk in to a new museum I always go to the prairies section first and search, so far in vain, for belongings from my family. There is a part of me that hopes something will be there under the glass, maybe a beaded jacket from my great-grandmother, or a photograph of aunties from long ago. And I have to wonder, why do I feel this hope? Is it to know that my families’ artistic contributions have been recognized? Would seeing their belongings in that environment even mean that? Or would it mean seeing something in person that their hands passed over hundreds of times, that is so close that I could possibly echo their long ago touch, knowing that if it hadn’t been preserved in this way I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see it now? Or, if confronted with something from my family, would I feel a loss and an urge to take it out from behind the case and bring it into the sun again. And how would I feel if I was denied that access, told that this garment that sat on the shoulders of a distant relative was not my family’s anymore but was instead owned by a faceless institution?
The collecting of belongings. Of things that belong to a family. Of things that belong outside of the four walls of a building. That belonged to people long passed. That now belong to their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. That now belong to a institution. How is one supposed to walk through these spaces and feel comfortable, at home, like they belong? That is the dilemma that faces a lot of Indigenous people when they enter the halls of the Royal BC Museum and Archives. Because those ‘objects’ behind the glass are not objects to us, they are belongings. And by taking belongings away from families, by grouping them together in certain ways, by recognizing one over another, they are categorized where someone thinks they ‘belong’—whether it is in the past, with a nation, or apart from their families. A lot of the time, where they have been categorized as belonging doesn’t feel right. Sometimes it does.
And so, when putting together the direction of this issue of Curious, I wanted to explore the different ways in which Indigenous people feel about belonging in the museum. By calling on Indigenous voices from across British Columbia, voices that in the past have been silenced in these spaces—intentionally or not—I wanted to hear their authentic experience. I wanted to provide space for the full range of emotion and let Curious be a museum space where people could speak openly and honestly about what it feels like to walk through the galleries, to go digging through the ethnology collection and the archives, to know they are still collecting belongings and experiences today, that they are still actively working on conservation and closer relationships with the Indigenous nations of British Columbia.
The response to my call was extraordinary. The stories that you will read in this issue of Curious will hopefully move you and challenge you to think differently about the spaces in the Royal BC Museum and Archives. And I hope that the next time you walk through the collections, or browse the archives you begin to really look at the objects behind the glass, and not with a casual cursory glance. Instead, take a moment and see the spirit that is still alive in all the belongings that continue to live with us because of places like the Royal BC Museum and Archives. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing or not because truly, after reading the passionate words, truth and personal stories of all these contributors I don’t think there is a clear answer yet. And for right now, I think that’s okay. As long as the museum itself is fostering this dialogue, as long as we are asking the questions and letting people have a voice, I believe we can move from a place of objects to a place where everyone feels that they belong.