Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Dr Jennifer Kramer, Curator of the Pacific Northwest, Museum of Anthropology and Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 17 March 2016

DR JENNIFER KRAMER: First, I would like to thank the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people for generously hosting me in their country and allowing me to leave my footprint on their land.

I recognise the Elders, past, present and future, and thank them for the knowledge that they choose to share. I especially thank and I’m awed by following June Oscar to this space. That is an awesome task you have set me.

I am humbled and honored to be invited to the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University, to be part of this New Encounters conference on this beautiful land. Thank you.

I want to begin with my favourite artwork in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, where I feel privileged to be one of the curators responsible to the First Nations Northwest Coast Collection.

Shaking the Crown’s Bone by Gitksan/Métis artist Eric Robertson was commissioned by the museum in 2000. It is meant to be an interactive sculpture that uses the gambling game of Lahal prominent on the coast, as a metaphor for relations between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples in British Columbia. In Lahal, players are on teams and guess which hand holds the marked stick.

The winner is the team that has collected and accurately guessed the most sticks. On these over-sized Lahal sticks are symbols of wealth from the land, salmon and cedar trees depicted in abalone, a sign of wealth on the Northwest Coast reserved for chiefs, as well as symbols of the British Monarchy that colonised the land in the mid-1800s, crown and jester.

In the middle of one stick is the 1763 Royal proclamation of King George III, printed in copper, another sign of wealth on the Northwest Coast. This proclamation has been used as the foundational legal document for pursuing native rights and title to lands which were taken away mostly without treaty in British Columbia or what became British Columbia.

The dates that you see on the hands made out of copper are important significant court cases where First Nations have won back Aboriginal rights and title in Canada.

The Federal Government of Canada, the Province of British Columbia and First Nations who choose to participate are now part of a modern tripartite treaty process that has been undertaken since the 1990s in British Columbia. Although many, I would say two-thirds of First Nations communities have refused to participate.

The hands around the poles ask the question of ‘How will we be involved? In anger with raised fists? In honesty and trust with hands open? In secrecy with hiding objects?’

Many First Nations in British Columbia have chosen not to participate, as I said, in the modern treaty process and taken either legal court routes to gain recognition for land claims and sovereignty, or taken an Indigenous governance approach that state sovereignty was never ceded.

Every time I walk past Shaking the Crown’s Bone, I engage with the sculpture by grabbing a hand and turning a pole. This sculpture reminds us that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are all involved in this historical relationship, and we must work towards our future together.

[shows slides]

What you see is a map of the land beneath our feet that we share in British Columbia. It’s taken from the air but it shows two locations that I am going to be talking about today. The ancestral territory of the Musqueam, Hulquminum speaking people is on the bottom of the map, where Vancouver is. Where are we? Vancouver is down here. There it is.

The Bella Coola First Nation, Nuxalk nation up here on the Central Coast. The pictures are UBC on the bottom, the University of British Columbia which is literally on Musqueam traditional, unceded territory. This is a picture of an ancestral Musqueam village, what’s there now, a bridge between Vancouver and Richmond, and then this is a picture of the Bella Coola Valley. Just to orient us a bit.

This slide shows the MOA [Museum of Anthropology] Musqueam Welcome Plaza at the front of the museum on the campus of the University of British Columbia. It’s called ‘Remember Your Teachings’ and, as I said, we are on the ancestral, unceded territory of the Hulquminum speaking Musqueam people.

Musqueam are our hosts as they never signed a treaty releasing their lands to the crown or the province. They never extinguished their sovereign rights. This is a crucial protocol recognising relationships for the museum, for Musqueam, for the university. MOA is a sight of relationship building. We store and steward objects that we refer to as cultural belongings.

But we are really about people. People’s connections to their cultural belongings and people’s connections to other people. This is not rhetoric. MOA recognises Musqueam’s ownerships to lands beneath our feet, and their rights to control the care and display, loaning and exhibiting of their belongings that we house in the museum, but that we do not recognise as legally ours.

Before any public event at the museum whether academic, lecture, dance festival or exhibition opening, we begin with a welcome from a Musqueam Elder or invite the Musqueam wolf pack to perform.

In 2012, the Musqueam nation and allies staged a year-long vigil to stop the development of a building project over the burial of Musqueam ancestors at an ancient Musqueam village called c??sna??m that existed 5000 to 2000 years ago at the mouth of the Fraser River.

The protest successfully stopped the building development and led to Musqueam buying the land from the private-held owners. Three exhibits resulted out of this encounter. Co-curator, Musqueam community member, Jordan Wilson, explains why the Musqueam chose to use the term ‘Belongings’ for the archeological objects excavated or taken from c??sna??m.

He says and I quote quite extensively:

As I first understand it, the use of the term ‘Belongings’ sought to re-establish Musqueam as the present day rightful owners of these cultural items. Upon further listening and reflection on what the community member shared with us, I became aware our use of belongings is more than a strategic response to western settler discourses and the disconnect caused by it. The use of the term emphasises the contemporary Musqueam connection to the tangible things themselves, but it also conveys that Musqueam have always been the carriers of these belongings’ intangible qualities including knowledge, about the power they continue to hold, how they should be cared for, what should be said about them, how they should be presented (if at all), and how they fit in to our way of seeing the world.

According to Jordan Wilson:

Belongings are a political expression that aligns with our ways of knowing. Pertained to both the historic and the contemporary, and connects the intangible to the tangible.

I’m going to quote him again because this is so powerful:

While our belongings from c??sna??m and elsewhere may not always be owned by the Musqueam community in a western legal sense, belongings references a different sense of ownership. One that is continuous and unbroken. And when we speak about these belongings, we’re speaking about more than physical items. We’re speaking about our history, where we come from and who we are today.

People often think of Vancouver as a new city. When, in fact, this region has been occupied for 9000 years. Located in the area, now commonly known as the neighborhood of Marpole and Vancouver, c??sna??m was first occupied almost 5000 years ago, and became one of the largest of the Musqueam people’s ancient village sites, approximately 2000 years ago.

Generations of families lived at what was then the mouth of the Fraser River, harvesting the rich resources of the delta. Over the past 125 years archeologists, collectors and treasure hunters have mined the c??sna??m village and burial ground for artefacts and ancestral remains. The land has been given various names since colonialism, including Great Fraser Midden, Eburne Midden, DhRs–1 and Marpole Midden, a name under which it would receive designation as a National Historic Site in 1933.

Today, intersecting railway lines, roads and bridges to Richmond and the YVR [Vancouver International] airport obscure the heart of Musqueam’s traditional territory. Yet, c??sna??m importance to the Musqueam community remains undiminished.

This multi-sited exhibition tells the story of c??sna??m, one of the largest as I said, ancient villages upon which Vancouver was built, and then tried to erase that history. The joint exhibits were a collaborate adventure curated by the Musqueam fascination, the Museum of Vancouver, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, where I work, and the University of Waterloo.

Each of the exhibits at MOA, MOV, and the Musqueam Cultural Center Gallery starts with a film in Hulquminum and English asking visitors to enter with an open heart, to place their assumptions specifically on a hook outside the exhibit gallery. The purpose was to ask visitors to recognise their active role as part of the process of acknowledging Musqueam history and title.

The exhibition at MOA, which are the photographs you see here, just a portion of it, focuses on Musqueam identity and world view. It highlighted language, oral history and the community’s recent actions to protect c??sna??m. Rich in multimedia, it strategically did not display any Musqueam belongings in order to emphasise the importance of the intangible.

The exhibit demonstrated Musqueam’s continuous connection to their territory, despite the many changes to the land. Told from the first person perspectives of Musqueam community members both past and present, it also sought to replicate ways of Musqueam ways of educating.

Here you can see what we call the kitchen table room, where visitors could go in, sit down, pretend to have a cup of tea or coffee, we wish they could have had the real thing, and listen to the voices of the elders talking, and laughing, and telling stories the way knowledge would have been and still is passed on at Musqueam.

I can’t claim any credit for this exhibit. It was co-curated by Sue Rowley and Jordan Wilson. However, I did benefit from the experience of having it in the museum for a year. It only came down in January [2016]. Though, the other two exhibits are still up and will be up for a quite a number of years now.

I am now going to turn to another example of how the Museum of Anthropology works with communities to re-frame objects as cultural belongings. This is an example of my collaborations with various members of the Nuxalk Nation over a 20-year period of relationship building.

I’m going to start with awful photographs. This was before the digital. I took it with a regular old camera and film, of our old visible storage at the Museum of Anthropology when we opened the building in 1976.

We were one of the first museums in the world to have open visible storage, with the idea to have democratic access for all visitors – without the curators’ imprint of what narratives were important to tell, what objects were important to show. However, museum staff quickly realised that there was nothing neutral about the way objects were displayed in this space.

As you can see here, the Nuxalk collection and the Tlingit [pronounced Clinkette] collection, which some of you may know is from Alaska in the United States, so hundreds of miles apart, were put together merely because of the size of the collections that the museum cared for. Not because they were contiguous in any geographic way.

I’m emphasising these raven rattles, which were actually ubiquitous on North West Coast, but these were owned by Nuxalk people, and came to the museum through sales or donation, usually without direct provenance. And I just want to show how they are displayed here. They are on a pegboard.

I don’t know if you can tell, but the labels are basically drawings of the objects in place with catalogue numbers, and then you go to a set of books to figure out what information. I would say that this is very much an ethnographic artefact, a museum classification system that doesn’t do much to contextualise the pieces.

So I’m going to talk about how now at the Museum of Anthropology we use the term ‘cultural belongings’ to provide an alternative to what I’m going to share with you, which is the art/artefact binary that I think we’ve all touched upon in the last day and a bit of this conference. There’s many ways we can value objects in a museum, and by different peoples, and through different times.

This is the raven rattle that you saw in the previous picture in the MOA catalogue system online and is accessible now. It is digitised now. It does convey the name of the maker, Johnny Snow and the name of the woman from Bella Coola, Mary Haithcoat[?] that sold it to the museum and the date, but it also gives the kind of museum information that I never really quite understand like red paint, blue paint, cedar, the size of it that seems to take its real meaning away from it.

The point of cultural belongings of using that term, is to acknowledge cultural values, Indigenous ways of knowing the world, and to acknowledge that these belongings have Indigenous owners, but also perhaps can be stewarded outside of Nuxalk communities.

So as I said, in the previous slide you could read the raven rattles very much as ethnographic artefacts, material culture. But here, what we’ve done as a result of a renewal project called a partnership of peoples – a new infrastructure for collaborative research – which is about making the museum more accessible and welcoming to communities of origin, and also re-organising their culture belongings in ways that made sense to them, and carry the value systems that they cared about, in the new visible storage system, which we have now named. It opened in 2010 and it was named Multiversity Galleries, which just means ways of knowing. Acknowledging that, not everything is displayed in an equivalent museum manner, but is organised. The belongings are organised based on working with communities, to see how they would like their belongings organised.

Just to give an example of other ways that a raven rattle, this one is a Northwest Coast anonymous, polychrome raven rattle. We don’t know where it’s from, Bella Coola. Recently it was up for auction at Sotheby’s and was valued at US dollars $60,000 $90,000. So you’ve got a valuing system, an alternative market-based valuing system that’s using monetary dollars and it’s also using a fine art boutique lighting, no background, no contextualisation for the appreciation. It’s an aesthetic modernising kind of valuing system. At MOA we try to correct this kind of thing.

So here’s pictures of two prominent Nuxalk community members. This is Snxakila Clyde Tallio who’s relatively young fluent language speaker leading a Ooligan ceremony to bring back the hooligan, a small candlefish on the coast that’s very delicious, and Head Hereditary Chief, Sixilaaxayc (Noel Pootlass) who is dancing. And what I want to point out – this happened to be from 2014 ceremonies – but what I want to point out is that they’re holding raven rattles, both of them as signs of their authority in the ceremonial work that they’re doing. We knew from working with Snxakila that a raven rattle in Nuxalk is a yatan.

So one of the first things we did when we reorganised collections was we put the Indigenous name first. We didn’t want objects abstracted into museological categories. For example, raven rattles in the previous iteration might have been called musical instruments, which doesn’t in any way capture their sacred chiefly role in ceremony and authority-making.

I worked very closely with Clyde to reorganise … this is another terrible photo that I think I took [laughs] with a regular film. This is Case 11. There’s two cases that represent Nuxalk cultural belongings in the Multiversity Galleries. I don’t know if you can tell, but there’s two raven rattles – one here.

This one is modelled raven side down, which is actually the appropriate way that the Nuxalk dance and do cultural work with the raven rattle. The story that was told to me was that a chief once had a beautiful rattle. And he had been told by his elders that he was to dance it like that in that position upside down, but he said, ‘I have a beautiful rattle. I want to show it off. Why should I listen?’ And he went out and he danced with the rattle right side up and the raven rattle turned into a real raven, flew off to the top of the big house and mocked whatever the chief did from then on. The moral of the story, as Clyde told me, was you have to listen to the Elders about what you’re supposed to do. About the proper way of handling these belongings.

The other rattle, you might notice, is actually raven side up. This was a result, so I was told by the mount makers, that though I specified we wanted the rattle in the right way, [laughs] raven side down, they said there was something about the balance of that particular raven rattle that they couldn’t do it. Now I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but every time I go into the Multiversity Galleries and look at that case, I expect to see a raven up on top of the corner saying, ‘You didn’t listen.’

And I want to express that perhaps this is a protocol. If you as a visitor who is not from Bella Coola, perhaps you wouldn’t notice or perhaps you would think that the raven rattle looked like it had just slipped from its museological perch. You wouldn’t perhaps understand. There’s no label explaining that it’s held in the proper way. But when Nuxalk visitors come and they see their cultural values represented in the ways that they recognise, their heart is warm. They feel like they’re being represented at the museum. This is a tiny, tiny example of the kind of work that we can do.

So as I was saying, a partnership of peoples was really about reworking the Multiversity Galleries in ways that if you are grandfather you would want to bring your grandchild to see your cultural belongings in this space. We actually have worldwide collections and we did our best to work with as many communities of origin as possible, although we were only a certain handful of curators.

Here is Case 11, where you can see Noel Pootlass’s sovereignty statement. He very clearly – I cannot read it from here – but he very clearly states that, ‘We came down from Macnatan. We came to this land. This land is ours. We have the crust. We have the dances. We have the regalia. They teach us how to be. It’s our land.’ And so, very consciously the Nuxalk Nation uses this space to make those statements of ownership.

I can see that I’m running out of time so I will speed up a bit here. But just to continue with the relationship building and the work that I do with the Nuxalk Nation in regards to their belongings and museums, you can see the … this mask on your left is in the collection of the Museum of Anthropology. It arrived in the 1950s just one collection removed from being sold at the Bella Coola.

This mask here is in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, down in Seattle just about three hours south of us. I had this sort of epiphany revelation when we were redoing the Multiversity Galleries because we spent a lot of time with the collections, and seeing them in new ways.

This is a photograph taken in 1920 in Bella Coola when this mask was part of the collection of what was the Hudson Bay Company owner, John Clayton. And I think you can see clearly that this mask in the inside is the mask at MOA, and the outside corona is the corona of the sun at the Seattle Art Museum. So at some time before 1952, I think it was, when we got the mask they were divided and a new Nuxalk mask was put in.

I teach a Museum Practicing Curation class with students who are learning about the process of curating and working with community, doing collaborative curations. We chose that year to do a reunion of these two masks, to bring them together and to work with the Nuxalk to bring their cultural knowledge about these masks back to the pieces that had been in museum collections for 60 years. And so that’s why I highlight the reunion of the tangible and the intangible, echoing Jordan Wilson’s words about talking about cultural belongings.

I’ll go through this very quickly, but this is a one-year course, so it’s two terms. We got ethical permission to work with the urban Nuxalk community in Vancouver. We did a call out on a rainy, rainy Tuesday and you can’t really quite see, but we probably had about 30, 40 community members – from children to elders – come to see what all the fuss was about, what we were doing, why should they care. And then we also took down names and said, ‘Who should we be talking to in Bella Coola?’ so that the students did interviews with artists with families who the sun was their crest.

What came out of it was the exhibit Together Again: Nuxalk Faces of the Sky, which I’m going to argue is an example of a figurative repatriation, though this sun mask never went home and in fact we couldn’t even convince the Seattle Art Museum to take out the mask that was clearly too small for the corona and put back in the mask that had been photographed with it in the 1920s.

On the left, you can see one of the students with our exhibit in the Multiversity Galleries. And on the right, you can see the same version after it travelled down to the Seattle Art Museum and Art Gallery and I find it really interesting. The students worked very hard. This is the back of our case, it was just one case. It’s a very large corona, really big, four feet. On the back is all the voices of the community members, the artists, examples of sun masks design and carving and T-shirts in the community and on the land, to show the importance of it. And the Nuxalk community actually decided to represent themselves as aligned under the Nuxalk Sun as their whole crest, even though traditionally the sun would have been owned by specific families. But they decided, for this representation, they didn’t want to represent many families claiming a crest. They wanted to be united.

Then if you go back just to look at what happened, when is the art gallery, it went on a white wall, it got put up out of view, almost all of the texts disappeared and all of the busyness and, to me, the life of what these pieces mean in Bella Coola disappeared.

We celebrated this exhibit with a kind of closing celebration where we combined all kinds of work that happened at the Museum of Anthropology. You can see here, it was a film festival of films from Harlan Smith in the 1920s all the way up to the present made by non-Nuxalk and Nuxalk people with commentary. We recognised the buying of a Nuxalk mask and we had dancing and we had feasting. And here you can see Musqueam elder, Henry Charles, welcoming the Nuxalk to their territory and you can see Clyde Talleo getting ready to invite the dancers on the floor.

These are photographs of community members that I know very well, Susan Elliot, on the left, with her daughter, Chloe, and her granddaughter, Kierra and her first daughter, Larisa. She says: ‘My daughter, the younger generation wants to see the exhibit and our history’.

So it was really interesting because it was through people like them that created that history, that created that content.

They were very happy – they live in Vancouver – to visit their belongings in the museum, to have a chance to see what’s down in Seattle because many don’t have passports to cross the border.

The other photograph is of Francine Gascoyne and Jucinda Mack, Jucinda is a filmmaker. I love it because, I don’t know if you had Charlie’s Angels here, but that classic pose of the ladies with the guns working for Charlie, to me this is a sign of women’s strength, but it’s also a sign of ‘This is our space.’ The museum became Nuxalk space on this day, September 11th, 2012 and they were obviously very, very happy to be there and to show off who they were.

So you’re probably wondering, ‘What is this figurative repatriation?’ In 2004, I proposed the use of a new term, ‘figurative repatriation.’ It was not meant to supplant the necessity of belongings returning home to do sacred, cultural and social work. I always say if a belonging needs to be home, should be home, then that’s where it should go.

But what we’re finding at the Museum of Anthropology is that often when communities see how we are caring and respecting for their cultural belongings, then they’re quite happy to have us steward them, just like a request was saying at the NMAI [National Museum of the American Indian] to care for them in the ways that they’ve lined out for us to care for them, and then to loan them back to community for pot-latching, for important ceremonial events, for artists to make copies. We also are very accessible, have all kinds of rooms for artists to come in and spend time with the pieces. And you can see here, with the belongings, excuse me, you can see Diane Paul with a Nuxalk blanket.

And she actually wrote on her blog the difference between going to the Museum of Anthropology and getting to spend time by herself with the blanket in her room for hours, as much time as she wanted, versus the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria where they took her in, they pulled out the drawer, they said, ‘Look, take a picture.’ They closed the drawer, they pulled out another drawer. They said, ‘Look, take a picture.’ There were the gates that you were talking about. From this piece – I can’t talk it about today – but she did this wonderful headdress for her master’s at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Then down below you can see Lathan Mack as a very young carver in I think that’s 2008, but he’s now quite a middle-aged carver and doing incredibly well.

Let me tell you about figurative repatriation. What I wrote:

I believe the desire that motivates repatriation, is the desire to obtain the right to self-define who one is, as an individual and as a First Nation. Therefore, I would like to suggest that one could more fruitfully view repatriation as the act of claiming metaphorical territory, via control of an object. This is done by Indigenous people setting the terminology with which one discusses their cultural objects, now defined and recognised as belongings, thus compelling the use of an Aboriginal conceptual system. Although ostensibly, repatriation is about the return of an object to a specific place. It is also about being linked to an object and making a challenging statement about who is in control.I believe figurative repatriation requires non-Indigenous audiences, so that messages of Indigenous control and ownership can be heard, seen, and witnessed by non-Indigenous people. In this way, these statements, exhibitions, art works, exist in interactive spaces. They are sights of action for the creation of empowering social relations.

In conclusion, I hope I have given a few examples of why it is politically and culturally significant for Indigenous community members to connect to material culture made by their ancestors. But also, what are the implications and resulting affordances from recognising these objects in museum collections as active cultural belongings, and to make claims of figurative repatriation with them.

I’ll just conclude. There’s an Indian from India, museologist Dr Kavita Singh, who observed in 2013, at the Future of Ethnographic Museums conference at Oxford:

… that museums try to re-embed objects that have been wrenched away. Museums have become places of symbolic repatriation. Communities desire to reinscribe objects sacredly.

Dr Singh says:

This is an act that presents itself as traditional, but actually, it is a profoundly contemporary act, a refusal to submit to museum taxonomies. It’s a political act.

So I think acts of figurative repatriation, where Indigenous cultural belongings are stewarded in museums and recontextualised, or really returned to Indigenous ways of knowing, both traditional and ongoingly changing and contemporary, requires non-Indigenous publics to witness this assertion of ownership and control.

Whether objects are ancestors or our links to ancestors, objects are relations between people across space and time.

Belongings. Renaming a Nuxalk raven rattle and displaying it appropriately, exhibiting the sun mask, its reunion, and allowing it to travel from one country to another, reconnecting it to its community, the c??sna??m, the multi-sided c??sna??m exhibits. I argue, these are acts of figurative repatriation, and show that museums don’t preserve the past so much as they constitute the present and help create the future.

Process, not product, is the goal in our ongoing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples at the Museum of Anthropology. We need to see the benefit of the museum to be traded by Indigenous knowledge. And here I’m citing, I’m repeating John Carty:

Where curators become objects, and objects become belongings, subjects for Indigenous self-determination.

Thank you.

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top