Royal B.C. Museum’s commitment to returning First Nations artifacts is a good thing

On June 21st, National Aboriginal Day, Premier Christy Clark and Jack Lohman, Chief Executive Officer of the Royal B.C. Museum (RBCM), among others, gathered in the First Peoples’ Hall at the RBCM to announce a partnership between the province, the RBCM, and Indigenous communities to proactively support First Nations in seeking the return of ancestral remains and items of cultural significance.

Lohman began by recognizing “the importance and respect we have for the deep history of the Songhees and the Esquimalt people in whose territory the Museum was built.”

“Aboriginal British Columbians will control this process at all times with the technical and logistical assistance of the Museum. We look forward to this journey together.”

This initiative is one more step that the RBCM has taken in pursuing respectful relationships with Indigenous communities; steps not often seen with other large institutions. For example, while hiring facilitators for the Our Living Languages exhibit, only applicants of First Nations heritage were considered. Preference to Indigenous applicants was also given to their other summer positions. Furthermore, the Our Living Languages exhibit was created in partnership with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

I sat down with Lohman to ask him about the repatriation initiative. Lohman, who has worked in museums on four continents, says that while largely under-documented, the RBCM has one of the most impressive histories of working with Indigenous people that he has seen.

“I’ve seen what happens when you return something,” he says. Giving people something “tangible to hang onto” can be hugely healing, especially when they’ve been made to feel destroyed.

Lohman acknowledged that the RBCM isn’t perfect, saying “there is room for a lot of improvement on what has been achieved to date.”

However, the RBCM’s dedication and interest in repatriation really does set it apart from many other museums.

“In a way,” says Lohman, “it’s a sort of quiet revolution.”

I think it’s hugely important for prominent community figures such as the RBCM to prioritize this type of progress. Ours is a society in which those with authority choose whose stories are told, and whose histories are remembered. Indigenous communities ought to have control over their own items of significance, and choose, if they so wish, which items they want shared with the public. They should decide which stories are told, and how they are shared

Politicians make promises all the time. If a politician had announced this as a provincial initiative, I would have likely doubted it success. It is because of the tireless dedication and attention to detail I have witnessed at the museum that this initiative might have a shot.

And I can say with certainty that you wouldn’t overhear conversations about decolonizing museum spaces in many other institutions, or have staff go to such great lengths to ensure content and programming is respectful and free of stereotypes.

In moving forward, it is paramount that Indigenous communities in British Columbia are in the driver’s seat. This isn’t about the museum, or the province. It’s about justice for Indigenous communities across British Columbia and, ultimately, Canada. But if the museum can facilitate repatriation for various Indigenous communities, then all the power to them.

This initiative is something to be celebrated — one that will force other museums around the world to take note, and will (hopefully) spark critical conversations about cultural and racial relations within Canada.

Sarah has been working at the Royal B.C. Museum through Young Canada Works for the past month. She does not speak on behalf of anyone at the Royal B.C. Museum, nor the museum itself.

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