by Camille-Mary Sharp
In the introduction to the catalogue for First Peoples of Canada: Masterworks from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (2008-2011), the exhibition’s curators write that, without the work of early museum collectors, “countless pages of history” would have been “left to lie unrecognized only centimeters below our feet.” (Pilon et al., 2013: 9). These 19th century “collectors”, whose material findings formed the basis of what is now the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) in Gatineau, Quebec, were scientists and cartographers employed by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) to map the natural – and exploitable – resources of so-called British North America. Extracting rocks, fossils, minerals, and enough Indigenous artifacts to justify the eventual creation of an anthropological division within the GSC, their work not only founded Canada’s national history collection, it also carved the path for the country’s current (and controversial) oil and mining industries.
This history points to a two-fold implication of extraction in a museum like the CMH, from its constitutive relationship to energy production to the broader notion that museums are extractive institutions premised on the colonial urge to collect, classify, and exhibit – to “know.” I first became interested in the links between extractivism (1) and museums through my doctoral research on oil-sponsored exhibitions (Sharp, 2022). In 2016, as I began this work, museums and galleries in Europe were experiencing a growing wave of anti-oil activism, spearheaded by organizations like Art Not Oil, Liberate Tate, and, eventually, Culture Unstained and Fossil-Free Culture, who carry out creative interventions calling for the end of sponsorship agreements between cultural institutions and Shell, BP, and other fossil-fuel companies. Despite a relative absence of such resistance in Canada, the CMH also eventually faced public scrutiny for its sponsorship by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) in 2017, thereby resurfacing the museum’s extractive entanglements.
Much like the artifacts extracted by the GSC, the substance fueling most debates over museum sponsorship – oil – also initially lies “below our feet.” (Pilon et al., 2013: 9). As Métis author and activist Zoe Todd reminds us:
[Oil] rested beneath the loamy soil and clay of what is now Alberta for eons. Anecdotes of the Dene people’s use of the bituminous tar that occurs naturally along the Athabasca River in northern Alberta to patch canoes reminds me that these oily materials are not, in and of themselves, violent or dangerous. Rather, the ways that they are weaponised through petro-capitalist extraction and production turn them into settler-colonial-industrial-capitalist contaminants and pollutants.” (Todd, 2017 in Beyond Extraction, 2022: 12).
Indeed, in parallel to the decades of Indigenous resistance that have nearly convinced the international museum field that objects and ancestors ought to be left within or returned to their communities, land defenders and scholars continue to oppose the intensive exploitation of the earth’s fossil fuels and minerals. Today, museums are faced with these two distinct, yet increasingly overlapping reckonings: “decolonization” (2) and the need to address the climate crisis. But the emerging paradigms of decolonial and climate-informed museum work make for particularly tense dynamics in countries like Canada, where settler-colonialism endures and the predominance of extractive capital has entailed longstanding partnerships between culture and the oil industry.
Thinking about extraction in museums more broadly – from collecting practices to our ongoing complicity in extractive wealth – helps to highlight the significant challenges that lie ahead. As the corporations and elites who are overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis continue to seek public support by sustaining or participating in cultural institutions (3), many museums are increasingly committing to climate-related programming and carbon footprint reduction. While such efforts should not be dismissed as superficial or inconsequential, the disparity of reforms across museums from public-facing practices to behind-the-scenes funding and governance is reminiscent of the ways dominant systems and institutions co-opt social movements to secure their own survival without giving up economic or political power.
A powerful example of such co-optation in Canada overlaps with the only other anti-oil protest at a Canadian museum, and likely one of the first worldwide: the Lubicon Nation’s boycott of the Shell-sponsored Spirit Sings exhibition at the Glenbow Museum (Calgary, Alberta) in 1988. Despite significant reforms in museum practices following this controversy, like increased consultation with Indigenous communities around the care of artifacts, the primary grievances of the Lubicon – Shell’s sponsorship and challenges to Indigenous land sovereignty – were seldom discussed in the aftermath of the exhibition. Kelsey Wrightson (2017) argues that the museum field’s response – primarily through the groundbreaking Task Force Report of Museums and First Peoples (1994) – “served to partially recognize Indigenous peoples’ cultural claims for inclusion and recognition at the expense of their political claims.” (42). As Lubicon chief Bernard Ominayak reminded the public in 1987, “Our objection is that the sponsors of the show, oil companies and the Alberta government, are the same people who are out in our area and destroying our people” (32).
Today, emerging efforts aimed at solidifying museums’ commitments to issues like sustainability continue to raise critical questions. For example, in 2021 the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Ontario) appointed a curator of climate change, “the first position of its kind at any major museum in North America” (Blaze Baum, 2021: para. 2). At the same time, the museum receives significant funding from the mining sector and regularly participates in the world’s largest mining convention, providing attendees private tours of its mineral collection (Beyond Extraction, 2022). In June 2022, the scholar-activist collective Beyond Extraction (of which I am a part) launched an online counter-tour of the museum’s mineral collection, providing critical interpretations of some of its objects and drawing attention to the museum’s corporate partnerships (Beyond Extraction, 2022).
More recently, an article in Penta – a “publication for wealthy individuals and families focused on wealth management and philanthropy” – argued for a shift toward “socially responsible investing” in museums’ endowments (Schultz, 2022). While initiatives like climate education and “green investing” represent a productive step toward asserting museums’ role in climate change mitigation, they do little to recognize the larger structural dynamics at play in extractive capitalism, environmental racism, and socio-economic inequity. As TJ Demos writes, a just transition entails “a radical restructuring of our politics and economics (…) rather than another depoliticized, single-issue environmental initiative, or worse, part of the growing project of green neoliberalism.” (2019: para. 5). In other words, in the same way that some critics refute the efficacy of decolonizing a colonial institution like the museum (Kassim, 2017), it is difficult to imagine financial growth as anything other than destructive and oppressive in our current economy and planetary state.
As I wrap up my dissertation research, engaging with the work of scholars and activists critical of extraction has helped me reflect on the broader implications of museum sponsorship. My recent collaborations with Beyond Extraction and my interest in the geological foundations of both Canadian collections and extractive capital have further reinforced the warnings of critics like Demos (2019) that our narrow interpretation of carbon as the primary obstacle to sustainability is insufficient in tackling the root causes of the climate crisis. While the global community is coming around to the idea that fossil fuels like coal and bitumen ought to “be left to lie below our feet,” the threat of extractivism persists as the mining sector – keen on extracting metals necessary for renewable energy – is set to benefit greatly from climate anxiety. As the museum field remains slow to consider funding and governance as essential museum work that ought to be critiqued and reformed along the same lines as object-based practices, market-friendly solutions like green investments leave us unequipped to imagine museum funding beyond current calls to divest from oil.
But a path forward may be found in the rocks, fossils, and minerals such as those excavated by the GSC or which sit in the Royal Ontario Museum’s collection as an ode to extractive wealth. In stark contrast to material culture and artworks, geological collections are only just beginning to be understood according to “the social violences of mineral acquisitions” (Hearth & Robbins, 2022: 13). Revisiting and reinterpreting these objects, such as through Beyond Extraction’s intervention, can only help to expand the radical potential of museums and their communities in manifesting a more just, equitable, and sustainable society.
(1) Extractivism is increasingly popular concept within critical scholarship and grassroots organizing which broadly refers to the ways that not only natural resources are exploited, but also “labor, data, and cultures.” (Mezzadra & Neilson, 2019, in Riofrancos, 2020: para. 1).
(2) I use the concept in quotations to acknowledge resistance to the term both in museums (Kassim, 2017) and decolonial pedagogy (Tuck and Yang, 2012) and define it as the guiding framework to reform museum practices as they relate to Indigenous collections, interpretation, access, and community relations.
(3) See, for example, Shell’s recent sponsorship of the Science Museum’s Our Future Planet (2021) exhibition, which controversially promoted carbon-capture technologies.
Assembly of First Nations & Canadian Museums Association. (1994). Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples. https://museums.in1touch.org/uploaded/web/docs/Task_Force_Report_1994.pdf
Beyond Extraction. (2022). Resources. In Mining at the Museum: A Counter-Tour. https://www.beyondextraction.ca/
Blaze Baum, K. (2021, November 14). ROM’s first-ever climate curator wants to move ‘away from the doomsday aspects of climate change’. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-roms-first-ever-climate-curator-wants-to-move-away-from-the-doomsday/
Demos, T.J. (2019). Climate Control: From Emergency to Emergence. e-flux Journal. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/104/299286/climate-control-from-emergency-to-emergence/
Hearth, S. & Robbins, C. (2022). Mineral displays as embodiments of geological thought and colonial invisibility. Journal of Natural Science Collections (10). Pp. 3-17.
Kassim, S. (2017, November 15). The museum will not be decolonised. Media Diversified. https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised/
Pilon, J-L. & Prince, N. (2013). First Peoples of Canada: Masterworks from the Canadian Museum of Civilization. University of Toronto Press & Canadian Museum of History.
Ominayak, B. (1987). Interview, Last Issue. Box 2 of 9, 1987 Administration Files, f. B.8.6.8 “Lubicon Issue”: 32. Glenbow Museum Library and Archives.
Riofrancos, T. (2020, November 11). Extractivism and Extractivismo. Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with The Global South. https://globalsouthstudies.as.virginia.edu/key-concepts/extractivism-and-extractivismo
Schultz, A. (2022, July 8). Most Museums Don’t Put Their Money Where Their Values Are. Penta. https://www.barrons.com/articles/most-museums-dont-put-their-money-where-their-values-are-01657309252
Sharp, C. (2022). Decolonize and Divest: The Changing Landscape of Oil-Sponsored Museums in Canada. [Unpublished thesis]. University of Toronto.
Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society (1) 1. Pp. 1-40.
Many thanks to Chris Alton for putting Zoe Todd’s powerful quote back on my radar and to my fellow Beyond Extraction team members for being a continued source of support and inspiration.
Camille-Mary Sharp is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, where she wrote her dissertation on oil sponsorship in Canadian museums. Camille-Mary teaches on the topic of museum activism and regularly speaks about museums, funding, and environmental sustainability. She is part of the scholar-activist collective Beyond Extraction and co-led the intervention Mining at the Museum: A Counter-Tour. Camille-Mary will join the Program in Museum Studies at New York University as a faculty fellow in fall 2022.