This week we are pleased to welcome guest blogger Emily Meikle, recent graduate of the Master of Museum Studies Program at the University of Toronto! I met Emily and heard about her work while attending sessions at the Ontario Museums Association Annual Meeting where I gave a keynote workshop together with Porchia Moore about designing (and defining) an Incluseum. At least two sessions were devoted to museum practitioners, academic museum programs and students sharing about ongoing partnerships with First Nations communities in Canada and work that centered indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched in 2015, provided a background to many of the conversations at the Ontario Museums Association Conference and was clearly influencing conversations and responses to First Nations communities and collections across museums in Canada. As Emily discusses, her work creating the radio show, Artifacts on Air, is about addressing the persisting challenges First Nations people experience to accessing their own cultural heitage. – Aletheia
As an artifact moves between contexts, its story changes. It may tell the story of the people who made and used it, but it also tells the story of those who collected and displayed it. Sometimes the bridge between these stories is not a peaceful one. As is the case for many collections of Indigenous archaeological material in Ontario, there is often some form of disjuncture between the stories. The material may have been collected without the consent or consultation of descendant communities, meaning that it may be severely dissociated or misinterpreted. One example of this is the assemblage associated with the Sealey Site held by Sustainable Archaeology McMaster. The Sealey Site is a Neutral Iroquoian village site located near Brantford, Ontario. The victim of severe looting for over a century, the materials associated with the Sealey Site come with very little archaeological context. As such, while they represent the lives and culture of the people who made and used them, they also speak of the long and difficult history of the practice of archaeology in Ontario. Approaching the Sealey Site material, I wondered how the multivocality of such a collection could be addressed through interpretation and further, how we could use that interpretation to begin to heal some of the hurt surrounding the collection of the Sealey Site material.
Although many steps have been made towards promoting an inclusive approach to collections since Canada’s Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples in 1991 and the Calls to Action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, many collections of Indigenous archaeological material remain inaccessible to descendant communities. Sometimes this inaccessibility stems from a lack of cultural coherence. The artifacts may be cared for or represented in a way that does not align with the needs of the communities to which they relate. Artifacts that are not on display are often kept in storage spaces that are difficult to access and do not provide a welcoming atmosphere. Deborah Doxtator (1996) describes this sense of alienation, noting that the experience of viewing one’s cultural heritage within a space that appears to be devoted to classification and analysis may not be well suited to the cultural needs of the collections or the community members. Often, inaccessibility takes a more literal form as collections may be held at a location that is physically distant from members of descendant communities and, if not currently on display, a special appointment may be necessary to visit the collections.
To try and alleviate some of these concerns, museums have increasingly used forms of remote interpretation to improve the accessibility of their collections. Usually, this interpretation comes in the form of digital media, which offers users the benefit of being able to see images of an object and access multiple sources of information quickly and easily. However, because of the historic inequality of access to Indigenous collections, it is sometimes not desirable to make images of artifacts openly available through digital media. Offering content online also demands both that the user have ready access to the internet and that they know how to use it. In remote communities with limited access to the internet, this means that digital content may be inaccessible to community in general as well as to those who are not computer-literate.
With all of this in mind, in March 2016 I met with a selection of experts consisting of cultural heritage experts and archaeologists to develop an interpretive radio program centred on the Sealey Site collection. Community radio has proven itself to be a powerful means of sharing cultural knowledge in many Indigenous communities in Ontario and we wanted to explore if and how the methodologies used by Indigenous community broadcasters could be applied within a museum setting. The resulting radio program, titled Artifacts on Air, used the Sealey Site material as an entry point for discussing broader issues of access to collections and the relationship between First Nations communities and archaeologists in Ontario. Offering a mixture of personal and professional experience, the expert speakers each provided a different take on this subject, working to build a multivocal interpretation of the artifacts in the process. The work here is not finished. The extent to which the content of the program focused on the larger issues surrounding Indigenous archaeological collections, rather than the Sealey Site itself, speaks to the need for more discussion of this subject. There is a great deal of healing yet to be done and it will likely take a long time. But there is a lot to be said for power of a shared space and respectful discussion for fostering good will and accountability. To listen to Artifacts on Air click the link below.
Artifacts on Air by William Fox, Heather George, Richard Hill, Jessica Hinton, and Emily Meikle in collaboration with Sustainable Archaeology McMaster is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Doxtator, D. (1996). The Implications of Canadian Nationalism for Aboriginal Cultural Autonomy. In Curatorship: indigenous perspectives in post-colonial societies (pp. 56–76). Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Task Force on Museums and First Peoples (Canada), Canadian Museums Association & Assembly of First Nations. (1992). Turning the page: forging new partnerships between museums and First Peoples. Ottawa: Task Force on Museums and First Peoples.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. Winnipeg, Manitoba.
William Fox has been involved in Ontario archaeology for over 50 years and participated in research throughout the northeast U.S., and in several European countries. He was employed by the Provincial government for 19 years as Regional Archaeologist of northwestern, north central, and then, southwestern Ontario; Senior Archaeologist for the province; and finally supervisor of the Development Plans Review Unit. In 1992, Bill was hired by Parks Canada as Chief of Archaeology for the Prairie and Northern Region. Today he continues his research as an Adjunct Professor in the Anthropology Graduate Program at Trent University, and is an instructor in the Anthropology Department.
Heather George is a Public Historian working in museums and heritage sites with a focus on community building, through oral history, education programing, exhibits and digital collection methods. She is a member of the board of trustees and the former Cultural Coordinator at Chiefswood National Historic Site and is currently exploring Indigenous methodologies at McMaster University.
Rick Hill is an artist, writer and curator who lives at the Six Nations Community of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. Rick has served as the Manager of the Indian Art Centre, Ottawa, Ontario; Director of the Indian Museum at the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe, NM; Assistant Director for Public Programs at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution; Manager of the Haudenosaunee Resource Center; and Coordinator for the Joint Stewardship Board at Six Nations to develop an environmental interpretation centre and is the manager of the Six Nations Virtual Archives Project. He is currently serving as Senior Projects Coordinator at the Six Nations Polytechnic Deyohahá:ge (Indigenous Knowledge Center)
Jessica Hinton is Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) with family from Temagami First Nation. She graduated with an honours BA from Trent University in 2013, major in Archaeology and minor in Indigenous Studies. She holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and is currently pursuing her PhD at Trent University. Her research focuses on archaeology’s portrayals of Indigenous people, and the importance of self-representation / determination here on Turtle Island.
Emily Meikle is a recent graduate of the Master of Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto. She holds a BA in English Literature and Archaeology from McGill University. Her Master’s research examined issues of access and collaboration in Indigenous archaeological collections in Ontario.