Indigenizing The Museum of Vancouver

The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) is one of the country’s largest and oldest civic history museums, with a long history dating back to the late nineteenth century.

Today if one visits the museum, the very first thing one would encounter is a strong Indigenous presence according to University of British Columbia (UBC) anthropology professor Bruce Granville Miller who is also a museum board member and chairs the collections committee. From the large Squamish culture map to the ancestral canoe, MOV has taken on an institutionalized Indigenous identity.

“Back in 1904, some of the collections were just Vancouver people going somewhere and bringing something back. That kind of collecting is not what we wish to do now,” says Miller. One of the major themes for the museum is diversity and we have a special interest in collecting Indigenous items.

The change didn’t happen overnight but took over a decade. It all started with building better relationships with the Indigenous communities from MOV’s repatriation program and developed into getting Indigenous people onto the board. It is still a work in progress with the MOV continuing to expand its collections and programs with Indigenous themes.

Repatriation of Indigenous belongings

As the chair of the collections committee since 2002, Miller has been instrumental in creating and institutionalizing the museum’s repatriation program of returning items of a ritual and spiritual significance back to the Indigenous communities.

Bruce Granville Miller is a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. | Photo courtesy of UBC

“One of the reasons that I wanted to create the program was because there used to be a boulder in the atrium at the museum that I felt was out of place and should be returned to the community of origin, so one of the very early repatriations was about that,” he says.

The stone sculpture belongs to the shíshálh Nation which had made a repatriation request dating back to 1976 but with no success. Under the new program, the sculpture finally made its journey back home in 2010.

“The board policy now is to repatriate all those items that have ritual or civil importance to the community, or we think that might be obtained under coercive or illegal methods,” Miller explains, “100 years ago, some items were purchased from local Indigenous people. It was in a time when some cultural practices were deemed illegal by the government; there was a ban of ceremonial life.”

He adds that the museum is also reorganizing parts of the Indigenous collection such as ancestor remains, based on the advice of the cultural expert from the community.

“We institute and follow Indigenous protocol for handling, and we put them in a special place on their own,” Miller explains.

The museum has amplified its practice to get Indigenous people in for a visit and they can make a request to repatriate something.

One significant repatriation that took place based on such a request was the return of a Sasquatch mask to the Sts’ailes Nation according to Miller.

“It was one of the most dramatic events that I have experienced. We were at their longhouse, there were 600 people,” he says. “That mask has a spiritual prerogative, so there is also a dance associated with it. They danced back into the longhouse, the excitement of those people having the mask back was huge.”

Building permanent relationships

Miller adds that the larger theme of the repatriation program is about relationships with the communities.

“When we repatriate, we are saying we would like to engage with you. How should we do it?” he asks.

In 2016, MOV welcomed its first board member of Indigenous background after engaging with the communities for years. The museum now has representatives from all the three local first nations – Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh.

“We have done a number of projects now with first nations,” says Miller. “They sometimes hold events in the museum; we have had successful exhibitions. Haida now a few years ago was one of the best anywhere. It was co-curated by one of our people and a young Haida museum curator. We also had the city before the city exhibition that won an award. There was a period recently that I thought the museum was the world leader of exhibiting and working with Indigenous communities.”

With one of the major focuses of the museum being the diversity of the region, MOV is also focusing on collecting artworks from contemporary first nation artists both for display and for permanent collections.

“We don’t just want to reflect the diversity of the city, we want to be one of the leaders in the conversation,” says Miller.

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