Museums are vast storehouses of knowledge. The objects they preserve inform us on all aspects of human existence, or at least they can if we know what these objects are. The information age has seen the democratization of authority. Gone are the days when only a few official sources held all the right answers. Museums are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of the information they have. Once considered the sole authorities on their collections, museums are now seeing the value in consulting with the communities who made and used the objects now on display or housed in their storage areas. By bringing people together to share knowledge around these artifacts, all parties benefit, and the objects themselves become more important because more is known about them
Housing knowledge in museums
In many ways, the end of the 19th century was the great age of museums. Every developed Nation wanted their own grand institutions in which to display the cultural wealth of humanity for the education of their citizens. This sparked a frenzy of collecting to acquire objects that became “must haves” for every museum worthy of the name. In the case of First Nations and Native American culture, this drive to collect was all the more frantic as it was believed that these cultures were on the verge of disappearing. Over a century later, North America’s First Peoples have not disappeared. Indeed they are increasingly affirming their presence in contemporary society and questioning the use and display of their cultural heritage in museums around the world.
All tangible objects have an intangible heritage
Any object that has some form of cultural use is a combination of the material object that it is (What is it made of? How big is it? How old is it?) and the cultural information associated with it (How was it made? What is it used for? What is it significance to the culture it comes from?). When these objects were collected from Indigenous communities, the cultural information about them was often separated from the material object. Collectors took the objects, but the wealth of community knowledge about each one rarely made it back to the museums. Today, many museum records are silent about an object’s cultural use. For every well-documented object, there are many others about which little is known, or whose documentation is inaccurate. On the flip side of this coin, many First Nations communities have retained the cultural knowledge about these objects, but no longer have direct access to them. Unfortunately, the normal processes of transmitting information from one generation to the next within these communities have been disrupted due to culturally harmful colonial practices. Some First Nations groups have requested that these objects be returned to them to help promote cultural teaching. While this is possible in some cases, many museums are either unwilling or unable to repatriate objects to their source communities.
Since 2010, researchers at the University of Montreal lead by Dr. Élise Dubuc have been exploring what happens when First Nations communities and museums come together around these objects. Even if repatriation isn’t possible, there are ways for both parties to share information about the objects that benefit everyone involved.
Sharing cultural heritage
In 2013, secondary school students from the First Nations communities of KitiganZibi north of Ottawa and Mashteuiatsh near Roberval, QC accompanied by Elders from their communities were welcomed to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the trip was to discover cultural objects housed in the museum’s collection which had originally been collected from their communities. The week long visits demonstrated the potential of shared systems.
Both students and Elders were able to handle objects not seen by their community in generations. The objects served as tools to transmit important cultural information from the Elders to their community’s youths. For the museum, the visit was also an opportunity to learn more about the objects in their collection and what they represent for their communities. The museum used its technological resources to teach the students how to document an object using photographic and video equipment. Each student took detailed photographs of several objects and made a short film of an Elder or other community member talking about a particular artifact. These photographs and films returned home with the students to be used by their larger communities. Most importantly, each week-long visit was an opportunity to build a personal relationship between the museum and the communities. This relationship will hopefully allow similar exchanges in the future.
Diminish loss capacity, increase value
Objects preserved in museum collections are only of use if we know something about them. Their purpose is to educate others and serve as a witness to humanity’s cultural past. If we don’t know what they are, or why they were significant, they can’t fulfill that role. In a similar manner, if the source community can’t access the objects, their usefulness as tools for cultural transmission or as a way of explaining intangible cultural heritage is negligible. An economy based on sharing can increase the value of goods or services by eliminating or diminishing lost capacity. In the case of the National Museum of the American Indian and the communities of KitiganZibi and Mashteuiatsh, coming together around museum objects enabled both parties to increase the value of these objects for themselves and for each other. Though questions about the ownership of these objects and whether they should be returned to the communities they originated from remain unresolved, communities and museums can perhaps find some middle ground and both derive some benefit from objects that would otherwise be underutilized by adopting similar models based on sharing.