Last month I attended the Historical Thinking Winter Institute at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. The institute was designed for history / social studies educators and museum curators to look at historical thinking and how we teach about the past.
The Royal BC Museum, like many museums around the world, contains materials that were taken from people and places without what we would now consider permission.
The Royal BC Museum has responded to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action in regards to its materials and artifacts:
…The Royal BC Museum recognizes the time is appropriate for a
broad ranging assessment of its fundamental role as a public
institution of memory and dialogue. The Royal BC Museum
should question its dogmas, interrogate our languages of
reflection, and reassess our relationship with communities. The
museum aspires to provide a common space of encounter and
negotiation, where our cultural practices overlap, interact and
accommodate. This cultural space should be located in local
values and traditions….
Haida House Poles – t’annu ‘Illnagaay
For one of our sessions, groups were invited to look into different areas of the museum that have become problematic. Either the representation of the past has become outdated, or more context needed to be given about the artifact itself.
We were invited to look at the Haida house poles in the First Peoples gallery. We learned that the totem poles were taken from Haida Gwaii in about 1953. They were chainsawed into 3 pieces and shipped to the museum in Victoria. The “permission” granted is hazy at best. In 1953, this was acceptable for people attempting to “preserve” history by removing totem poles and shipping them to museums and universities.
We were then tasked with deciding what to do with the poles today. Historical Thinking is a process that can be used to work with questions like this. The 6 “pieces” of historical thinking are:
- Establish historical significance
- Use primary source evidence
- Identify continuity and change
- Analyze cause and consequence
- Take historical perspectives, and
- Understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations.
The Ethical Dimension: How Can History Help Us Live in the Present?
When the totem poles were taken, the cultural significance was not clear to the team of anthropologists, academics and museum staff. While today we were shocked that the poles were chain sawed into 3 pieces, at the time this was accepted practice. While the practice of preservation continues, it has changed. A house pole would not be removed from a Haida community and shipped to a museum.
We discussed what strategies could be used to “right the wrong”. With assistance from museum staff, they let us in on their current practices. For older pieces such as these, they ask communities about their preferences. The Royal BC museum had a relationship with carvers that were able to replace older carvings with new pieces. This relationship facilitated the transfer of skills to new carvers and also employed artists. Totem poles such as these could be returned to their original communities, or left as is. It would be the decision of the communities that they had come from.
Cause and Consequence: Why do Events Happen and What Are Their Consequences?
We asked “What would have happened if the house poles were left in Haida Gwaii?” I encountered my own biases. In settler culture there is a drive to preserve things, keep things and save things. I recounted my family’s trip to Bella Coola and the petroglyphs that exist outside of town. We asked our Nuxalk guide in Bella Coola if anything was being done to preserve the petroglyphs. He explained that they would be left exposed to the elements – they would be around for as long as they were around for and would eventually dissolve back into the river bed.
“How can we learn if we don’t have these poles?” came up in our discussion at the museum. Is it necessary to preserve everything? Why do we collect and save objects? Could a “new” totem pole have the same significance? As someone who teaches history and loves using primary sources in teaching I had to ask myself about the consequences of focusing on preservation. What values are focused on ? Even, is it a healthy practice?
I left the institute with more questions about how I perceive history, and what I value as education, as well as insight into new ways of teaching the past.
There will be a Summer Historical Thinking Institute this July in Vancouver, at the Museum of Vancouver.