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Associate Professor David Garneau, Fine Arts, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, 18 March 2016

MAT TRINCA:  Our next keynote speaker is David Garneau, Associate Professor from the Fine Art Department of the University of Regina in Saskatchewan in Canada.

This is David’s second visit in recent times. He was here for the forum ‘Return of the Native: Contestation, Collaboration and Co-authorship,’ and a number of people in this audience, who were involved and present for that fine forum a few years ago.

I think he’s also bound for Auckland, if I’m not mistaken, in May, for the joint Museums Australia and Museums Aotearoa conference, where no doubt, elements of what we’ve been discussing over these few days will again percolate and continue to be discussed.

David will speak on some of the complexities and ironies around the concept of decolonising the Museum.

Please join me in welcoming David Garneau.


DAVID GARNEAU:  Thank you, Mat. That was really stirring. I’m going to say almost the same things from a different point of view. I’m about four years younger and still angrier. [laughs] In maybe four or five years I’ll be as temperate. I really hope so, that was so beautiful.

I acknowledge the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territories of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I am a grateful guest. I bring greetings and offer respect from the Treaty Four Territory, home of the Nehiyawak – that’s the Cree – the Nahkawininiwak, which is the Saulteaux, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples, and the Métis nation.

Thank you, Margo Neale, the National Museum of Australia, the Australian National University. All the organisers and funders for returning me to this beautiful country to speak in this remarkable building, near this exceptional exhibition, and among your mindful selves. I’m humbled by the company.

Replying to a colleague who was defending a friend, Winston Churchill famously quipped, ‘He is a humble man, but then he has much to be humble about.’


I resemble that remark. I’m neither a museum curator, nor an anthropologist, nor a PhD of any strain. I’m a painter. I curate art, mostly indigenous in Treaty Four and Treaty Six territories. I’m an artist who teaches painting and drawing at a regional university in Canada, Saskatchewan, Regina. The very trifecta of modesty. We do have summer.

Ironically, in the inverted worlds of a contemporary museum and academy where margins often centre, having much to be humble about can be a quality. Legal scholar and Blackfoot philosopher Leroy Little Bear explains that indigenous people preferred to be generalists, knowing a good deal about many things and not too much about too little.

Being a specialist is a Western preference that serves capital better than it does people and planets. It reduces independence and the ability to be agile in a world of flux. Amongst this illustrious company, it is this philosophy alone that gives me hope that my multiple deficits might add up to an asset.

Little Bear describes the Blackfoot worldview in pedagogy as circular, centreing on stories told, retold, and understood differently in iteration. In this spirit, this paper recycles much of this conference’s ideas, but differently. What you don’t recognise, let’s call that Métis knowledge. If you feel offended, imagine that I’m only talking about the Canadian context.


This paper’s a spiral, a basket of a talk that circles our shared struggle towards non colonial institutions. Places where First Peoples would feel both at home and challenged. The first section coils around the Colonial Heritage Museum and its potential for indigenisation. Then I will weave in some aligns about the return of the Native conference.

I’m just going to talk about the title really. I’ll pick at a loose thread in the Encounters exhibition and twist in a shift in heritage museums, from artefact necropolis to living rooms.

I conclude with a knot about indigenous humility and humiliation in the museum. This is a pared down version of a much better talk. I’ve removed the humour, the charm, the poetry for the sake of time.


The basket may not look pretty, but it should hold together.

This time last year, my colleague, Michelle LaVallee, and I curated ‘Moving Forward, Never Forgetting,’ a large contemporary art exhibition, performance art series and community projects about the Indian residential schools and other forms of aggressive assimilation, intergenerational reconciliation among aboriginal families and conciliation with settler neighbours.

At the opening, Tahltan performance artist Peter Morin, brought to the gallery a large collection of books whose contents have caused harm due to their erroneous depictions of First Nations in the Indian Métis people. Over five hours, he and community members drummed and sang over the children, stories, novels, and history art and anthropology text.

They washed each page with a medicinal tea. Morin wished to honour these, but also the author’s labour. He wanted people to know about the caustic nature of these volumes, but did not want to make a spectacle of indigenous suffering for non-indigenous consumption.

He declined to write an essay or give a speech, because such actions engaged the texts according to their terms rather than his. He wanted to show, not to argue. The group cleansed the books and tried to lay their bitter contents to rest. Later, Morin implanted the volumes across Turtle Island. It was a moving gesture by a humble man, a moment of grace and instants of indigenous critical care.

Here he is, his other practice is going to museums and singing to his ancestors. [shows image]

Since their invention, Indians have been the subject of scholarship, museum displays and academic conferences. The history of aboriginals as speaking subjects in these places is recent fugitive and fraud, but improving.

In a short time, we have gone from native informants to consultants, and now struggle towards something resembling colleagues. The next step is the non-colonial museum, to be at home in a shared keeping house, rather than a guest among our objects in the house of another.

To indigenise rather than merely to feature aboriginal belongings in respectful and beautiful ways requires exquisite change, anxiety and critical excitement for us all. The coming generation of indigenous scholars, curators and artists is more interested in sharing than being accommodated.

They’re reluctant to replicate settler mentors and methods when they conflict with aboriginal ways of knowing and being, and with territorial and creative sovereignties. They’re more excited about learning, embodying, performing, producing and presenting aboriginal ways than they are about deconstructing dominant cultures, false, inadequate and humiliating misrepresentations.

Let’s not get hasty. Creative correction is endless, necessary work and can be a lot of fun when it’s not a heartbreaking grind in the irony mind.

Rather than centre our lives on anti-racist and anti-colonial work, expand our creative energies reacting to dominate others, first peoples are turning to positive production to what I call non-colonial activities. To reviving aboriginal epistemologies, ontologies, metaphysical and material practices and adapting to contemporary lived lives. If this work is not to be an indigenous, separatist project alone, but also to entangle and untangle colonial institutions for a mutual benefit, we need to map the moment and develop terms of engagement that produce the indigenous without losing our aboriginal selves.

I personally feel the weight of this invitation. How do I present an indigenous perspective in this company without relapsing into the role of the native informant? How do I be heard without being fully apprehended? How do I participate without becoming an Indian agent complacent in assimilation?

Another moment from ‘Moving Forward, Never Forgetting’ – clothing his recently deceased father’s headdress in a neatly quilled and beaded regalia artist agent Stimpson sits in the University of Regina hallway for five hours each day for three days.

Art world types will recognise the reference to Marina Abramovic’s performance at the Guggenheim. Uncomfortable civilians see a play on the stoke and wooden Indian; is he being ironic? Next to Stimpson is a table with photos of his dad as a child behind his enlarged image of the old [inaudible] Indian residential school that senior and junior Stimpson both attended.

Across from him is an empty chair, signs that are intended to let passers-by know that they can sit with the artist, but that he will not speak. Responses range from international students eager to take selfies with a real live Indian, to others who sit in contemplative companionship. Some are annoyed that the artist will not explain himself.

The academic branch of the colonial enterprise assumes that everything and every person should be accessible to those with the means and the will to access them.

Stimpson offers a dramatic indigenous engagement but refuses the discursive engagement preferred by the non-indigenous. Frustrated would be interlocutors given no access to the author, to the authority, are left with their own perceptions. Others, especially in natives, feel the moment. They sit in cold relational silence.

They don’t have to be told what to do. They cry, they share comprehending and consoling looks, nods and shoulder pats. Some even sing, drum or play the flute for him, for the children, for all our lost innocence. Stimson’s intervention is a gentle disruption of the academic flow in indigenous presence without apology, translation or giving anything away but grace.

I have a bad taste in my mouth for leading with a Winston Churchill quote, and I was going to cut this one out but as I walked in here, of course there is that big behemoth striding across the campus.


Because Churchill also said, ‘I do not admit for an instance that a great wrong has been done to the Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to this people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly wise race, has come in and taken their place.’

While horrifying, it’s refreshing to have the foundational sentiment of colonial thinking so plainly stated by one of its leaders.


At least he admits that the place was not terra nullius, that the place was theirs.


Most Canadians believe that they live in a post colonial country, independent since 1867, and I assume that Australians feel the same way, more or less free from Indigenous rule since 1901. First Nations Inuit and Métis, remained in a colonial state. Most of our lands are occupied and lives governed not by Britain, but by Canada.

I used to the word ‘non-colonial’ to indicate that because we do not live in a post-colonial country, theory arising from those states where the colonisers left can only be applied here with caution. We need new terms.

Museums were never public institutions in the sense of standing outside of the state and functioning as a means of criticising it, explains Tony Bennett:

They are designed to produce meanings that serve the needs of the nation and those citizens who most benefit from it. They perpetuate dominant ideology especially in the middle and professional classes who engage curatorial institutions to learn what is expected of them.These publics go to museums to absorb the cultural competencies necessary to secure and reinforce their social status and distinguish themselves from the working class.

That’s what Bennett says. If we transpose ‘working class’ with ‘aboriginal people,’ we get some insights as to why, while these store houses hold tonnes of our things, they notoriously attract few native guests.

Simply put, they’re not for us. To paraphrase and repurpose Bennett: Heritage museums in still-colonial countries, are designed for settler audiences to absorb the cultural competencies necessary to distinguish themselves from aboriginal people and thereby reinforce and perpetuate their colonial status.

Contemporary heritage museums formed within colonial, capitalist and entertainment paradigms, require novelty. The aboriginal, and other forms of embodied descent, are tolerated as long as they surprise with consumable difference but do not threaten to inspire beyond the aesthetic and the affective.

Worse still, if assimilation remains the unstated desire of settler Canada and Australia, then the vogue for so called duo-colonial adjustments, community consultations, indigenous territoria but not quite curation, may simply be the machinery of assimilation in slowed motion and with a new name. If so, then it is understandable if conscientious aboriginals decline or limit their participation.

‘Any native cooperation from the colonial institutions,’ argue first nation political thinkers Glen Coulthard and Taiaiake Alfred, ‘is a compromise of sovereignty on the way to cultural and physical annihilation.’ They advocate for Aborigine only keeping houses, what I describe elsewhere as irreconcilable spaces for Aboriginality and sovereign Aboriginal display territories.

We have just heard an example and here’s one that had some contact with Saulteaux speaking people in the West Bank of the British Columbia. These places exist, are growing, and are central to indigenous separatist futures. However, I’m interested here in the possibility of collaborative futures. Ones in which colonisation is transformed by indigenisation, rather than vanquished by violent revolution.

My view is that heritage museums and universities are not necessarily always and only propaganda machines. We are of course compromised and that whether we promote, resist or simply benefit from colonisation, we are infused by the system. However, not all such engagements are equal or total, and not all compromises are pernicious.

Contemporary museums and universities do not simply reflect state ideology but produce it. They also articulate the state’s discontents and figure its remedies, one of which is indigenous.

The taste for imperialism has soured and colonisation in countries now known as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and sometimes the United States, has shifted from the brutish invasion, broken treaty and forced assimilation stage, to the dominant cultures present wish to entreat survivors with what they call, at least in Canada, reconciliation.

This activity is played out most poignantly in museums and other sites where history, nation and identity struggle information.

With respect to Bennett, ‘Wherever their origin, contemporary heritage museums and universities are now places where citizens’ – we’ve just said the same thing – ‘not only learn who they are and are not, but these are the places where they go to change their minds. And if there is a collective and explicit will to transform them from their sites of colonial reproduction to spaces of non-colonial conciliation, then indigenous curators and audiences should co-author that future.’

The evolution from genocidal disposition to conciliation is part of an international social justice movement codified in the United Nations Declarations of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which recognises and attempts to ameliorate past and current injustices. But scholars and other environmental activists go much further.

Canadian scientists like David Suzuki, philosophers such as John Rosten Saul and numerable native authors, educators and leaders, find in traditional and indigenous ways of knowing and being an antidote to the colonial capitalist, patriarchal, and racist traditions that have engendered intolerable social justice and environmental calamity.

This project is not about cultural mosaics, or polyphony of equal voices, or rotating displays of ethnicity. It is about imagining and performing a better world based on the cultures of stewards who have thrived with care for millennia. It is no longer about aboriginal people enduring civilisations…


That was a joke. But is about producing our own sustainable versions. We live in a moment of cultural dissonance.

Colonial institutions and persons comprehend their complicity and fundamental injustice, but few can quite picture non-coloniality, a state which includes morally just, tolerably privileged and recognisable versions of themselves, let alone imagine possible futures that do not include their replication in white skins or not.

I humbly suggest that we add a twelfth item to Ian Coates’s list of how museums can better deal with aboriginal publics and property: the necessity of indigenous curators. Reparation is not simply the turning over of native bones and belongings to aboriginal care.

It is the restoration of the community of living aboriginal people with their ancestors and contemporary belongings in sites that should include the museums that reside on their unceded territories. While aboriginal things are at the centre of national museums, aboriginal curatorial presence is a recent phenomenon, and the fit remains uncomfortable.

To be an indigenous curator, rather than a curator who is indigenous, or merely a curator, is to be in perpetual negotiation with the demands of the colonial institution and the complexity of aboriginal world views, political, tribal and family obligations.

It is an unsustainable position, as long as the museum remains the dominion of colonial unconscious and its elaborate means of repression. From a distance, Encounters sounded like a cruel twist. A re-turning of the screw. Expropriated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ belongings returned for a visit before being returned to the other motherland.

Yo-yoed from Britain, this exhibition would drop in, pause, reverse turn, and return. ‘Behold your wonderful things, quickly, before we take them back.’ Axiomatic of colonisation is the elimination, removal, containment and/or assimilation of first peoples, so that their territories can be occupied and resources exploited for the benefit of the coloniser.

Axiomatic of the colonial heritage museum, then, is that the Aboriginal peoples be separated from their better belongings, and these items be displayed as trophies of conquest, proof of possession. In this paradigm, objects are thought to be owned by their possessors, and the preservation of artefacts has priority over the needs of living native peoples in relation to them.

Non-colonial museums take as axiomatic that these territories, by right of occupation, belong to its first peoples whose relationship to country is not translatable as property, and therefore not extinguishable by exchange, purchase, or occupation.

Similarly, while some Aboriginal objects were produced for trade and given as gifts, others were not. They were plundered and ought to be returned. The non-colonial museum centres living Aboriginal people. It recognises that non trade once were artefacts, now belongings, belong in the care of Aboriginal people. Either in our own sovereign display territories, or in co-managed keeping houses.

In any case, indigenous people should handle indigenous belongings. In one possible future, indigenous curators in sovereign nations will produce exhibitions of settler belongings so that all of humankind will better understand colonisation.


I had to put in some humour. Indigenous curators will, of course, curate the first shows, but once the non-indigenous colleagues have learned the profession, they will be offered internships…



…temporary appointments, and eventually co-credit exhibition opportunities. If they hang on and play their cards right, they will get their own projects, but they will only be able to curate white belongings from within indigenous understanding of white people. Just kidding, that would be wrong.


Western style museums, with their foundation on object preservation, favor the sterilised thing and environment over messy bodies. Such a museum is a necropolis, a city of the dead ruled by a cryogenic attitude. One that places its faith in possible futures, rather than in the living present.

Cryogenics, that’s where you freeze your body and it goes, sent into the future, hoping science will be able to catch up. That’s what’s happening. Its residents are frozen in time, and addressed to a better tomorrow.

In an indigenised heritage museum, preservation is second to use through touch, story, and haptic rather that virtual re-creation. Re-creation meaning also the including of making new versions of old things.

The necro-politic attitude is more comfortable with the dead than the living, the embalmed and contained rather than the organic and physically engaged, the protected possession over the animated tool, and the image over the real. Virtual representations have their place, so long as that place is not to displace real people, things, and haptic making and replace them with colonial avatars.

This is just an example [shows image].This is wonderful. Maria Hupfield, I’m just not going to talk about it. Here she is in the museum. She makes them remove the cases so that she can play with the objects. This is a gathering of indigenous curators. There’s over 100 of us in this room. This is one of her objects. Then we do a round dance. It was just wonderful. That’s the way it should be.

For aboriginal people, objects are always in relation to bodies and stories. Severing this circuit is violence. Things only house part of the story. Their makers and keepers hold the other parts. The Encounters exhibition is an extraordinary achievement. I’m impressed by the care, both of the people and their belongings.

I know of no Canadian project with such broad community consultation. Particularly poignant for me were those moments when old things were paired with new. For instance, the harpoons and the fishing rod, and the stories and images that link them. This is incredible work.

Twined with the pride in the text panels and videos, though, is melancholy. The tantalising presence, yet enduring loss of these belongings. You can feel the curatorial tension. On one side are the Aboriginals whose ancestors made these things. On the other is the former empire that maintains possession. Grief and gentle protest echo throughout.

In a text panel, Gary Murray says:

We’re trying to do the right thing by our ancestors and the descendants of those ancestors today. It is the responsible thing to do, and we have the cultural duty to do it, so we basically beg the British Museum to return our cultural materials.The curators are clearly empathetic, but as agents of the Australian state, and in order to temporarily secure the objects from Britain, they had to appease their former colonisers in ways that must have been uncomfortable.

But make no mistake, before it is anything else, this exhibition in Australian nation’s capital, rather than touring through the First Nations, is a display of nation and the containment of First Nations. Still, the curatorial inclusion of dissent does disrupt seamless imperial display and ought to be acknowledged as such.

Now I’d like to pull a thread. A creeping absence I felt when I first encountered Encounters. Greg Lehman explains on a card:

We don’t want certain objects back simply because they’re old or because they’re worth a lot in auction.It’s because these objects are important to cultural practitioners today to be able to reference their own practices, to be able to build and continue those conversations about the continuity of necklace making, of basket making, of making man’s objects.

Throughout this conference, people have shared moments of sensuous knowledge. A man inspects an ancient spear to check the type of resin used to affix the point to the shaft. Another follows the weave with finger to know how the basket was made. A child touches a cane, and a boy listens to his grandmother’s pots.

In the exhibitions, many pages of text and hours of video there were very few such close encounters. Few recorded people show an informed relationship with specific items. Many speak generally about the need for these belongings to inform contemporary culture on principle.

Missing is a corporeal engagement with cultural practitioners and their ancestral belongings performing moments where haptic knowledge is released through touch and talk. There is a great deal of aboutness, but few instances of belonging body beingness.

I got permission from John Carey to talk about his paper. In his paper, ‘Curating the Curators; Some Reflections on the Politics and Poetics of Consultation,’ John Carey recalls a visit to Gunditjmara community in south western Victoria. I’m going to quote a long passage. It recapitulates what he said here on Wednesday.

And the purpose of the visit was ostensibly to discuss the objects from that country that were in the British Museum and were potentially going to come on a tour to Australia as part of the Encounters exhibition. And what was so interesting about the day was how uninteresting the objects themselves turned out to be to the Gunditjmara.People leafed through the booklets with polite attention, commenting here and there on a specific object, but the vast majority of our visit involved no engagement with these objects at all. They arranged to take these curators to the country on boats and by foot to see evidence of housing and aquaculture that were etched into the landscape.This was the focus of their attention, the repository of their values, and they invested significant amounts of time and energy that day directing the gaze of curators away from the booklets and on outwards to other texts, other objects and subjects.

The lesson he derives from the experience is the feeling expressed by his colleague, Jay Arthur. Jay said to me, ‘I feel like I’ve been curated.’ We are all fundamentally moved by the way in which our Gunditjmara colleagues had reframed the whole endeavor, and indeed brought into question the primus of the objects the curators were there to discuss.

That’s a beautiful moment, one familiar to anthropological narratology. The white agent’s concepts are overturned by the clever native. It’s not just a trope, though. It’s a truth of encounters.

However, I’m concerned by any settler’s story that concludes with non-indigenous curators believing they have the free hand to use aboriginal objects as they like because the descendants of the original makers appear less interested in those things than they are.

Conciliatory curation is a material dialogue among equals. It requires both parties to have full and equal access to the facts. This consultation, if consultation it was, did not consist of indigenous people holding and considering their belongings, but the passing around of images in a brochure, clearly a done deal.

That people might be indifferent to pictures is not the same thing as saying they’re indifferent to the belongings they represent. While the images might have sufficed as things to curators who may have also seen the objects pictured, the consulted Aboriginal people did not have the same relation, preferring to concentrate on the things at hand, things that were definite rather than indefinitely theirs, rather than picture, distance and immaterial to their present.

‘You can’t really connect with them without having the bare skin on them’, Harley Coyne a Noongar man told journalist Quentin Sprague. ‘To go across to Canberra and see it all in glass cases over there is fine, but we prefer to see things back here on country, obviously.’ The dark side of Encounters is the displaying traded, gifted or stolen Aboriginal objects before the eyes of the vanquished.

That was the word used on our panel by our host Geraldine Doogue, and then taking them back has the effect of increasing their value. It should come as no surprise then that those consulted would either display coolness towards the images or speak hotly but generally about their return.

Why give the colonisers the satisfaction of fulsome and intimate engagement when it would make it look like agreement. I went too far. As Carty beautifully explains the site of Aboriginal culture is never going to be the museum, it’s always in country, and the relationship of bodies and tangible land, story and song.

The non-colonial indigenous Museum endeavours to bring Aboriginal bodies and moments of haptic and oral communion together. At the same time it recognises that these are sites also for others. Places to display indigenous power to neighbours, not as signs as images alone, but as performances, as touch, as a living rooms, as deeper engagements with territory and the world views that have emerged from these places.

Why, when there are so many Aboriginal objects in our museums, so few Aboriginal people feel the right, feel right here, the right to be here. When your ancestral belongings now belong to another, being invited to visit them in their new owners beautiful house can be humiliating.

A further loss of dignity comes when you’re expected to be publicly grateful for these embroidered exhibitions of power. Museums or sites of colonisation when they engender in Aboriginal subjects, a sense of submission and cultural humiliation rather than agency. On the other hand to be able to contemplate and celebrate your cultural legacy in a home you truly share with others is humbling.

Being overwhelmed by your people’s achievements, seeing yourself in relation to, and as an extension of, that material and conceptual excellence, even succumbing to the pleasures of intelligence and effect of display design are among the sublime joys of humility. Such environments create relations between persons and past, things and peoples and each other.

They engender righteous pride, dignity and a sense of community and continuity, but also inspire desire to exceed strategies of mere survival and defensiveness and strictly tribal aspects of identity.

Humility is awe followed by rational assessment, a grounding that allows us to leap forward. We must collaborate design museums as sites of indigenous humility rather than humiliation. Indigenous curation is a curation of people rather than things. From Latin, curator is linked not just to object care but to healing, curing.

Rather than cure objects in the sense of preserving them, indigenous curators heal the estrangement between people and their belongings, they restore and re-story. Thank you.


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Date published: 01 January 2018

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