It was not just any visit. Guerin was there at the museum’s invitation in 2017 for the start of a project to renovate the room, incorporating Indigenous perspectives. For him and representatives of other Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, the five-year, $19 million renovation of Northwest Coast Hall, which reopened to the public on Friday, was the opportunity to tell their own stories.
“Our people are very, very tired of being ‘studied’ because the misconception of who we are has always been the downfall of the outside community,” he said. “We’ve always been there, ready to tell people who we are.”
The room was the museum’s first gallery, opened in 1899 under the auspices of Franz Boas, an anthropologist deeply interested in the native cultures of northwest and west coast Canada. Boas was also a proponent of what was then a revolutionary idea that different cultures should be considered in their own right and not on some sort of comparative scale.
However, it had remained largely unchanged since the early 1900s. When museum officials decided it was time to renovate, they knew they couldn’t do it without the contributions of people whose cultures are exhibited.
“A lot of what we’ve done has been to try to bring this historic collection into the 21st century, and that’s telling new stories with active voices in all of these communities and nations,” said Lauri Halderman. , vice-president of the exhibition.
The museum brought together representatives of indigenous communities to discuss what the gallery should contain and what it should look like for the showcase of 10 Pacific Northwest tribal nations.
It was not a straightforward process, made even less so by the impact of the pandemic with its requirement for remote rather than in-person collaborations.
The hall includes iconic pieces that anyone who has been to the museum will remember – including a massive 63ft long canoe which for decades was placed outside the hall but has now been brought in and hung from the ceiling as well as several giant sculptures. But his new exhibition, the articles are accompanied by texts in English and Indigenous languages and includes a gallery section showing how young Indigenous artists are using patterns and designs from previous generations.
There was also, and continues to be, the fundamental question of whether museums should hold these collections and try to tell these stories in the first place, given the role that theft and colonization have played in their construction, and how indigenous communities were treated.
The museums “seem to operate as very expensive, and in the case of the American Museum of Natural History, perhaps the most expensive trophy cases in the world,” said Haa’yuups, the hall’s co-curator, who is at the head of the House of Taḳiishtaḳamlthat-ḥ, of the Huupa’chesat-ḥ First Nation.
He said, “They seem to have a meta-language about them or a meta-message, ‘Aren’t we powerful? Aren’t we going to dominate the world? »
He saw his involvement as a way to stimulate a difference, to make people wonder if the exhibits would be best served by being with the people they came from.
“Does it make sense to have a group of people who have nothing to do with objects, to let them spend their lives managing them?” he said. “Or does it make sense to send these treasures back to the communities they came from?”
It’s a problem the museum faces and continues to grapple with, said Peter Whiteley, curator of North American ethnology. He said the institution, which has repatriated objects over the years, decided during the renovation process that it was willing to carry out limited additional repatriations and develop greater collaboration between the museum and the tribes. native.
Despite deeper questions, those who participated in the process, both Indigenous nations and museum staff, said it was a valuable process in terms of demonstrating what is possible in terms of collaboration and listening to indigenous voices.
“The best thing about it, the result of these consultants from the different native tribes,” said David Boxley, representing the Tsimshian Tribe, “is that it’s our voice speaking.”
Hajela is a member of the AP team covering race and ethnicity. She is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dhajela.