Why a small British museum went to great lengths to repatriate Haida Nation artifacts?

The current23:31Indigenous artifacts repatriated from small British museum to Haida Gwaii

Read transcribed audio

When Nika Collison received an email from a curator at the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery in the United Kingdom, she didn’t expect an unconditional offer to repatriate the Haida Nation artifacts in her collection.

“When I got that email, I think I was shocked at first,” the director of the Haida Gwaii Museum told me. The current‘s Matt Galloway.

“We have great relationships – and relationships that need to be formed – with museums worldwide. But it’s rare that a Western museum just comes and says, ‘How can we help you?'”

The museum in Buxton, England, repatriated the items to Haida Nation in August. They include an argillite tray with an ivory inlay and another argillite statue which Collison believes dates from the early 1800s.

“Those pieces are rare that we have access to, so it was beautiful,” she said.

Pictured in the Haida Gwaii Museum, Bret Gaunt, fifth from right, joined with Collison, fifth from left, to repatriate Haida Nation artifacts the museum held. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

Bret Gaunt, the Buxton Museum’s Collections Assistant for Restitutions and Repatriations, was the one who sent the email to Collison. He said he was nervous about approaching indigenous communities to repatriate the items in the museum’s collection.

“I didn’t really know what kind of reaction I was going to get,” he told Galloway. “And Nika’s reaction was just amazing. I could almost imagine her jumping up and down with joy.”

The Haida Nation artifacts and thousands of other items originally came into the museum’s possession through the Derbyshire School Library Service – a program established in the 1930s to collect museum-quality objects that would be sent to schools in local rural communities for educational purposes. sent .

“Over time, due to budget cuts and changes in the curriculum, the local government couldn’t really afford to run that service,” Gaunt said. “Then they were transferred to the Buxton Museum.”

An argillite tray with an ivory inlay, which was repatriated to the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate, BC (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

While the small museum, run by Derbyshire County Council, debated what to do with the thousands of artifacts now in his possession, Gaunt said he saw a “true, golden opportunity to connect with communities in Canada and the U.S. ” after reading more about repatriation efforts.

Although Collison had seen pictures of the objects before their arrival, she said the personal experience of unpacking and holding the items was incomparable.

“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and every time one of our ancestors comes home from a museum or university, or every time something comes home, it’s an incredible step forward in healing and recovery,” she said.

Remnants of colonialism

While some of the artifacts were originally acquired through trade by 19th-century European settlers, Gaunt said some of them were certainly taken “under duress.”

“So taking these objects off them under such appalling conditions seemed like the only right thing to do” [was] to actually return them,” he added.

Gaunt, assistant collective at the Buxton Museum for Restitution and Repatriation, said he saw a “true, golden opportunity to connect with communities in Canada and the US” after reading about repatriation efforts. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

But not every museum has taken that initiative, despite their stalls brimming with artifacts, Gaunt said.

“There’s almost a hamster instinct in museums,” he said.

According to Sara Angel, the founder and director of the Art Canada Institute, museums viewed artifacts as “ethnographic curiosities” to add to their collections.

“That goes back many hundreds of years when these sacred objects … were loot from colonialism,” she said The current‘s Galloway.

Angel said many encyclopedic museums considered the artifacts they acquired as “trophies” — “the more artifacts they had, the better,” she said.

Even among well-intentioned collectors who wanted to teach people about foreign cultures in a pre-Internet era, Angel said there were problems.

“The problematic part is that there was a very different idea of ​​what those cultures meant, and there was very little effort in explaining what those artifacts meant and how sacred they were,” he said.

“Anyway, they’re stolen. So they didn’t belong to the places where they ended up.’

A ceremonial wooden spoon, which Collison says is ‘absolutely beautiful’. (Submitted by Bret Gaunt)

For Collison, the possession of these indigenous artifacts by foreign museums is “part of that whole colonial system and stamp on our lands and people.”

“It’s part of residential schools, it’s part of Indian law, it’s part of biological genocide, it’s part of the Potlatch ban,” she said. “This work is restitution and repatriation.”

government aid

Angel compared repatriating artifacts to “finding a needle in a haystack.”

“In many cases what you have is a work of art [with] little description as to where it comes from,” she said.

“So imagine then doing the research, figuring out where it’s coming from, figuring out how to contact the people it needs to go to, etc.”

It’s also expensive.

“It took more than 20 years to bring home just over 500 of our ancestors from museums, institutions and private homes,” she said. “It cost, you know, over a million dollars”

Cost is partly why Collison believes repatriation efforts should be highly focused on federal and provincial mandates.

People really need to understand… the immense contributions this work makes to society in almost all facets-Nika Collison, Director of the Haida Gwaii Museum

But Angel said Canadian governments are behind their European counterparts when it comes to repatriating artifacts.

“We do not have legislation as it has been” in the United Kingdomlegislation as it has been recently in Germanylegislation such as it has been in France where governments have told museums: [that] this is something we need to do,” she said.

According to Angel, repatriating art and objects became part of the European psyche after they struggled with Nazi-looted art in the aftermath of World War II.

Only recently did Canada begin to recognize the need to repatriate indigenous artifacts, she said

“In terms of awareness about Indigenous art, that’s something that has really come in the wake of truth and reconciliation calling for action,” Angel added.

LISTENING | The First Nations curator wants to know what’s in the Vatican’s collection of indigenous artifacts

8:55The First Nations curator wants to know what’s in the Vatican’s collection of indigenous artifacts

Moving forward

Earlier this week, the Canadian Museums Association released a report with 10 recommendations to encourage Indigenous self-determination at every level of a museum’s operations.

The report also listed 30 ways a museum can support decolonization. An example is by recognizing that indigenous peoples have intellectual sovereignty over any material created by or over them.

Collison was part of the Indigenous Advisory Council’s recommendations for the Canadian Museums Association to encourage Indigenous self-determination at every level of a museum’s operations. She said it is a “solid report.” (Submitted by Jisgang Nika Collison)

Collison, who served on the Indigenous Advisory Council for the report, believes it is a “really solid report” that will help both Western museums and Indigenous countries advance repatriation work.

She also hopes it will help people understand the “incredible economic and social benefits” of repatriation work.

“People really need to understand the cost of repatriation, especially the Canadian government, the provincial governments, but they also really need to understand the tremendous contributions this work makes to society in almost all facets,” she said.


Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

Leave a Comment