Language Matters – Part 2

Suzanne  -  Jan 30, 2015  -  , , , ,  - 

"Morning Star," commissioned artwork by Dene-Suline/Saulteaux artist Alex Janvier on the ceiling of the First Peoples Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization

In December 2013, the Canadian Museum of Civilization was renamed the Canadian Museum of History. This is important for several reasons, none of them good, and all of them related to the way Aboriginal peoples are positioned and understood in Canada.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has had several incarnations: it was first known as the National Museum, then the Victoria Memorial Museum, then the National Museum of Canada, before being renamed the National Museum of Man (which included the National Museum of Natural Sciences). In 1986, the institution was re-envisioned as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and in 1989, a brand-new building designed by Métis/Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal opened to the public in Gatineau, Quebec, opposite Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Cardinal’s architecture evokes Haudenosaunee longhouses, coastal/Plains earth lodges, and Inuit igloos, using organic forms to reflect human interaction with the environment. Rather than being placed upon the earth, the building works with the earth, integrated with the architecture of the landscape and reflecting the Aboriginal focus on developing and sustaining relationships, in accordance with the Aboriginal notion that “power with” is more desirable than “power over.” Inside the building, the First Peoples Hall highlights the diversity of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canada, as well as the social, scientific, and artistic achievements of Aboriginal cultures across the country. Containing over 2,000 historical and contemporary objects, images, and documents – including the 450-metre-square ceiling masterpiece “Morning Star” by Dene-Suline/Saulteaux artist Alex Janvier and Haida artist Bill Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” sculpture depicting the Haida creation story – the First Peoples Hall recognizes Aboriginal ways of knowing and being. In the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Aboriginal peoples are more than stereotypical savages or impediments to nation-building, and our objects are more than quaint curios from times past. In the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Aboriginal peoples are civilized. The dominant society hasn’t always been so forthcoming with that label.

"The Spirit of Haida Gwaii," sculpture by Haida artist Bill Reid, First Peoples Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization

With the name change, however, this positioning changes. In the Canadian Museum of History, the First Peoples Hall doesn’t document civilization – it documents the past. This won’t change things for educators who teach history properly – through the lens of cause and consequence, with lines firmly drawn between past events and the world we live in today – but for those who are still stuck in dates-and-names-and-memorize-these-events-because-they-will-be-on-the-test mode, it’s a huge problem. The problem becomes even larger when we consider the changes that have been made to the museum’s mandate.

The mandate of the Canadian Museum of Civilization was to enhance “knowledge and critical understanding of, and appreciation and respect for, human cultural achievements and human behaviour.” The mandate of the Canadian Museum of History is to promote “understanding and appreciation of events, experiences, people, and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada’s history and identity.” That sound you hear? That’s the sound of Aboriginal peoples and cultures being deliberately obscured by the sound and fury of Great Men and Famous Wars and Important Machines.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the Canadian Anthropology Society (CAS), and the Canadian Historical Association appeared before the Senate in 2013 to protest the name change and the changes to the museum’s mandate. CAUT argued that changing the mandate takes the museum away from “an expansive understanding of Canadian history to a much reduced focus on … dates, heroes, and objects … that risks leaving out the experiences of the vast majority of Canadians. The stories and experiences of ordinary people and events that don’t fit into this political biography model will be marginalized.” The reduced focus and changed mandate also means that no attention will be paid to the connections between contemporary social and political events and their historical antecedents. Aboriginal peoples will be – as they so often are – left out of the present day and consigned to the past, defined solely by ancient artifacts and dead men. Work created by contemporary artists such as Dunne-za virtuoso Brian Jungen – who uses contemporary objects (lawn chairs, golf bags, running shoes) to create new artifacts as a continuation of ancient forms – has no place in a past that is separate from its future.

According to the CAS, the “museum’s collections are 80 percent Aboriginal, and the curatorial expertise of the museum is in keeping with that emphasis. It is not feasible to convert those materials and that expertise into other, still unspecified, Canadian historical themes.” Furthermore, the CAS told the Senate that there is a problem with “attrition in the ranks of specialist curators in ethnology, cultural studies, and archaeology.” Although the CAS has been “reassured that the First Peoples Hall will remain,” it feels that “without adequate research support it will be impossible to renew [the First Peoples Hall] properly, and it is clear that the First Peoples Hall is not the priority” in the new museum.

First Peoples Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization

So. Specialists in Aboriginal cultures are not being replaced when they leave the museum. The mandate of the museum now ignores social history, cultural achievements, and human behaviour to focus on what Queen’s University professor Ian McKay calls “a narrow, war-obsessed” account of past events that he describes as the “right-wing reconceptualization of Canada.” Instead of focusing on Aboriginal ways of knowing and being, and the impacts of colonization on Aboriginal peoples, museum-goers will now be presented with a timeline of past events that glorify nation building at the expense of Aboriginal perspectives.

The new museum is popularizing history rather than probing the past. Given recent events in contemporary society – the Idle No More movement, anti-fracking protests, and the inquiry into the death of Cree child Phoenix Sinclair, to name just three examples – this is not a good thing. As Dr. Victor Rabinovitch, Adjunct Professor of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and the former president of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, explained in his submission to the Senate, the new mandate is “narrow and parochial,” and the museum’s new “backward-looking focus, purely on the past” is flawed because “contemporary issues, activities, communities, and cultural expressions have no place in this, except peripherally as outcomes of the past.” Which seems to be the point. By erasing connections between the events of nation building and current issues in Aboriginal communities, non-Aboriginal Canadians will be left to assume that these issues exist in ahistorical stasis, apart from the events of colonization, connected to supposed inherent weaknesses in Aboriginal cultures – returning Aboriginal peoples once again to the realm of the uncivilized.

The museum’s new mandate replaces “knowledge and critical understanding” of cultural achievements and human behaviour with “understanding and appreciation of” events, experiences, people, and objects. Educators and curriculum developers know that the word “critical” is an important distinction. Devoid of any opportunity to consider different points of view or critically analyze the past – “to weigh evidence and make up their own minds rather than being spoon-fed a singular representation of history,” as Rabinovitch says – museum-goers will now be passive consumers rather than active participants.

There is some good news, though: no one seems to know about the name change. Everyone we speak to still calls it the Canadian Museum of Civilization. That speaks volumes about how Canadians understand the place of Aboriginal peoples in this country, and about how Canadians want to approach the work of reconciliation and understanding. The citizens of this country know that Aboriginal peoples are a vital contemporary force that must be considered in light of, and with a critical mind toward, the events of history.

To find out more on the artists mentioned in this post, check the following links:

Dene-Suline/Saulteaux artist Alex Janvier official website

World-renowned Métis/Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal official website
Cardinal’s entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia
Profile in the Toronto Star, detailing Cardinal’s new commission for the 2015 Pan-Am Games
Radio interview from the CBC Archives in which Cardinal discusses his brand of holistic/organic architecture

Dunne-za artist Brian Jungen’s National Gallery of Canada page
Article on Jungen in Smithsonian magazine

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