Royal BC Museum achieves excellence with Living Languages

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Almost a year after its addition to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM), Our Living Languages: First Peoples Voices in British Columbia has won the Excellence in Exhibition award from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for its ingenuity in showcasing the diversity of First Nations languages within the British Columbia region, and  the struggle to preserve them.

Since opening on National Aboriginal Day on June 21, 2014, this exhibit has received wide praise for its look at First Nations languages through the perspective of those First Nations people.

The American Alliance of Museums supports thousands of museums by providing resources, developing best practices, and advocating for institutions. Annually, AAM hosts an Excellence in Exhibitions award for noncommercial, public institutions. From 37 submitted entries, the RBCM received this award alongside three other institutions for its “groundbreaking, interactive” creation.

AAM’s award for the exhibit was predicated on the impressive use of interactive auditory components—one of the most difficult parts of any exhibition’s creation—and the unique consultative process that allowed for these stories to be told.

This interactive exhibit allows visitors to hear greetings from BC’s 34 First Nations languages in a “language forest.” Alongside this forest is a large touchscreen where visitors can learn more about the efforts to document and teach these languages. There are also spaces for people to watch videos of First Nations practices and relax in a cocoon-like structure listening to lullabies.

For those familiar with the First Nations Gallery from 1977, this is a shock to the system. The dark hallways and austere, glass enclosed objects within the older gallery lack an ability to truly resonate with visitors or connect to the First Nations people it presents, with too much focus on the white settlers and their impact. Our Living Languages, by comparison, is bright, lively, spiritual, and present through its focus on current language revitalization efforts rather than past opposition.

The focus of this exhibit is to highlight the risk these languages face and impress upon visitors the cultural necessity for their survival. RBCM CEO Jack Lohman identified the award as signifying “collaboration and mutual respect” between museum curators and the First Peoples’ Cultural Council that developed the material to be used in the exhibit.

“It has set the bar high for our future feature exhibitions,” said Lohman. In a press release, First Peoples’ Cultural Council executive director Tracey Hebert said that, although previous RBCM exhibits have reached out to the community they represent, none have gone so far as to allow the community to “develop design, story layout, and content” with such autonomy.

The exhibit can be found on the third floor of the RBCM, next to the First Peoples Gallery until June 2017.

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