In 1921 Kwakwaka‘wakw Chief Dan Cranmer hosted one of the largest potlatch ceremonies ever held at the village of ʼMimkwa̱mlis. Over 300 people attended, but this potlatch was held in secret because, from 1885 to 1951, it was illegal to hold a potlatch in Canada under the Indian Act. When Canadian officials learned that the ceremony had been held, they threatened participants with arrest unless they handed over their ceremonial items and regalia. 22 people went to jail. Over 600 items were confiscated and most made their way into the collections of three museums: the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the National Museum of the American Indian in DC and what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.
This was not an isolated case. It is no coincidence that the historical period during which Canadian museums acquired the majority of their First Nations collections was the same period during which the continuing effort of the Canadian state to destroy First Nations cultures was at its most intense. The residential school system was at its height, ceremonial practices were banned, and First Nations people, subject to the Indian Act, could not attend University, practice a profession, hire a lawyer, or vote, unless they gave up their Indian Status and assimilated into white culture.
The justification for mass collection of First Nations, Inuit and Métis art and belongings by colonial institutions was, ironically, conservation. As the Canadian state systematically sought to exterminate Indigenous cultures, museums collected the material evidence of these cultures because they expected they would not survive.
Of course, they were wrong. These cultures did survive. After years of work and struggle, most of the Cranmer potlatch items have now been repatriated to their home communities at the Nuyumbalees and U’mista cultural centers. But our museums are still full of Indigenous items and Indigenous ancestral remains acquired (stolen) during these periods, and we still often see preservation used as an excuse to keep them there.
This is the context in which I practice conservation as a white settler Canadian. I am not an objective observer, I am a subject in relationship with other subjects. To echo others in this blog series, these relationships involve power dynamics, history, values and worldviews. When we start to think about how to enhance collaboration in conservation, we should keep our positions in this power dynamic front of mind. It’s important to remember who we are, and to take responsibility for that.
We already know how to collaborate with people we are familiar with. Conservators collaborate often with curators, scientists, collections care specialists, exhibition designers, contemporary artists and private clients. We take the perspectives of other people into account all the time, we borrow from other fields, we think about the future life of an item and how it will be used in exhibition, how it will be stored, what researchers might want to look at it.
As a furniture conservator, it would be absurd to not consider use in my treatment choices and to consult the client about this. Will this chair I am repairing be displayed in a museum, or will someone need to sit on it? This future use will inform how I proceed. Why, then, are we often so reluctant to consider ceremonial use, community access, and collaboration with cultural experts as important factors that should inform our treatments?
As Natalya Swanson wrote in her post about working from a foundation of fear, I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we need to shift our perspective to consider why we are more comfortable with certain kinds of collaboration than we are with others. Why do we trust some kinds of knowledge more than others? Why do we trust some kinds of people more than others? And when we exclude certain people and perspectives from our collaborative sphere, what are we conserving?
Julia Campbell-Such is a cabinetmaker who recently retrained as an objects conservator specializing in furniture and wooden objects. She graduated from the Queen’s University Master of Art Conservation program in 2018. Since then, she has held fellowships at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and in the Furniture and Wooden Objects lab at the Canadian Conservation Institute. She is also a co-secretary of the CAC’s (Re)conciliation Working Group.