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17 December 2021


Colour the Canvas | Jingshu Helen Yao

Back in 2020, I submitted a Chinese rice cake recipe to Cooking the Past, an online cookbook collected by a group of food historians. During the correspondence with my editor, I was asked to provide specific measurements for the amount of flour and glutinous rice that was used.

I had no idea.

Rice Cake by Helen, Courtesy of the author.

When I made the rice cake, I just raised the bag of flour over the mixing bowl and shook it. I watched the white powder pile up like snow covering a hill, a mountain in winter. I then poured water and watched it stream down the sides of the mountain of flour, like waves washing over a sandcastle. I stirred them up with chopsticks and when they refused to form a dough, I added more water, and then more flour, until the dough was neither too dry nor too wet. 

That was an honest description of me making a dough but not something I could share directly. Not without stating how many cups of flour I used, even though I don’t have a measuring cup in my kitchen; not without saying how many grams of sugar I added, even though I think it depends, none at all or a whole lot of it – both measurements make sense.

On one hand, I understand why precise amounts are needed. If someone wants to recreate the dish, four cups are much easier to follow than the “appropriate amount.” But that wasn’t how the food was made at home, not how the recipe was taught to me. Both my mother and grandmother often used 适量 (Shiliang) or “The Appropriate Amount” to describe the amount needed for each ingredient. Even if they were asked to quantify it, they would say “as much as you think is needed” or “give it a try and you will know.” To me, recipes were never written; they were told over a steaming pot, over the sizzling sound of oil, over the aromatic smell of species. That was how I learned to cook, not through words and numbers, but through watching, listening, and smelling.

Eventually, I made a guess for my recipe submission and wrote two cups of flour and half a cup of glutinous rice. But I have no idea if someone followed these instructions strictly, whether or not they could make the rice cake that I’m familiar with. Subconsciously, I felt a little ashamed for not being able to provide a more accurate answer, for not having a drawer of kitchen supplies that have numbers and measuring units encrypted. But I didn’t give the feeling much thought and forgot about it soon after.

Amazon Best Sellers Kitchen Measuring Tools, Screenshots from Amazon.ca.

When I watched Mama Put’s story in Ozoz Sokoh’s documentary, Rice and Beans, I heard the following narration: “She has neither pastry cutter or cupcake plunger but she knows how deep to stick her knife…she will not win any awards for sophistication, her own people won’t let her... and because she does it anyway, without language. Do we not call her unskilled labour?” The memory of writing that rice cake recipe came back to me. Like many videos of street food vendors that went viral online, people may look in awe at the skills, eyes wide open. But these videos would not be categorized the same as the ones that feature a clean kitchen, shiny tools, young and attractive chiefs, and measurements. Not yet.

I was really excited to connect with Ozoz Sokoh through MSL4000: Exhibition Project, where she was a guest speaker at one of our lectures. I brought up how the documentary had moved me and inspired me to think deeper about my own culinary traditions. I shared my dilemma with her about measurements in recipe writing. Ozoz replied, “I think people have to understand the difference between conceptual recipes… by sight, taste, and deep understanding; versus precision cooking by following a recipe and measuring… they co-exist and one is not necessarily better than the other.” She then introduced me to the Persian word “Andaaza/ loose estimation”, discussed by Shayma Saadat (one of Ozoz’s friends and a food writer and blogger) in an article about her mother’s Ginger Chicken. It sounded a lot like how my mother would use 适量, which made me wonder how many cultures had, or used similar terms this way – to represent knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation without defining, specifying, or measuring.

In my first draft of this article, I titled it “The Opposite of Sophistication.” But what Ozoz said reminded me of is that cooking without precise measurement is not necessarily unsophisticated, but simply a different kind of sophistication related to a different culture, a different way of teaching. Therefore I renamed it with a term that I am familiar with and have been for a long time but had not yet fully explored: 适量 The Appropriate Amount.

9 December 2021


Breaking the Glass Case | Megan C. Mahon

Good morning museum friends, and now it’s time for another issue of Here’s How Hard It Is To Decolonize Museums. Not to depress anyone at this late stage in the semester, but I wanted to talk about a trend I’ve been noticing among Canadian museums recently and ask a vital question: do we, as participants in this program, believe that the museum can be reconciled? Not simply decolonized, but reconciled?

Some might argue it’s an issue of semantics. But I believe that, in most cases, decolonization is something that follows reconciliation. In theory, once Canadian museums have reconciled with the Indigenous peoples on whose land they stand, they can continue, with their input, to decolonize the museum - that is, to reimagine and reorganize their content with justice and restitution in mind. However, I fear that “decolonization” is in danger of simply becoming another museum buzzword – a trend that quickly fizzles, rather than a way of operating that all institutions should be committing to for the future. Many Canadian museums are at risk of putting half an effort into their decolonization practices, by not putting reconciliation first. And that will involve a total re-imagination of what “the museum” actually is and should be.

The Royal BC Museum in Victoria, for example, has recently closed its third floor, citing the need to completely overhaul their exhibitions in the name of decolonization. The galleries prepped to close include the “Becoming BC” exhibition and the extremely popular Old Town (which depicts the city of Victoria as it would have looked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). They’re also going to close their First Peoples gallery, as they want to feature Indigenous stories that are not based in white settler stereotypes from 1886 (when the museum was founded).

The outside of the Royal British Columbia Museum. Source: Michael Klajban. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_British_Columbia_Museum

On the surface, this looks great. These galleries definitely need an overhaul - as Geoff Russ, a member of the Haida community and a Victoria resident, put it, the First Peoples gallery in particular “desperately needs input from Indigenous experts” before it can reopen. The other exhibits also need thorough examination to ensure that they explain history from more than one (white) viewpoint. No, I’m not against gallery overhauls. But I’m also not sure that this gets to the very root of the problem.

The reason the RBCM is making these changes is that past staff members have complained about “a culture of racism and discrimination.” The resignation of Lucy Bell, who had been the head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation department, sparked a third-party investigation into internal practices - the results of which were, apparently, “not good.” Put simply? It’s not only the galleries that need an overhaul.

Some artifacts of the First Peoples collection at the Royal BC Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Museums are made up of people. While art, objects, and artifacts might be the public face of an institution, people make them run – and it’s the people, not the artifacts, that have to do the work of reconciliation. If the RBCM changes their exhibits and didactics, that’s great. But if the people who make those exhibits and didactics continue to participate in making the museum unsafe for Indigenous folks, then only the surface has changed. The colonial wound has not, in fact, healed at all.

It’s a similar story at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Following their own – oft-repeated and studied by students in this program – blunders, their CEO was fired. They’ve since spent over four thousand hours on employee training (don’t be racist! is it really that difficult?) and instituted Robert Greene as Indigenous Elder-In-Residence. But as new CEO Isha Khan has stated, disrupting the colonial standard in museums “takes really thoughtful and deliberate work and takes a long time.”

She’s right. For once, I have to think the CMHR is taking the right approach. It’s not about changing galleries - although that takes a lot of work, it can happen relatively quickly. Changing people won’t happen overnight.

However, that brings me to the question which is the crux of this article: is the museum too steeped in coloniality to ever be reconciled, no matter how much the people within them may change and grow?

Pondering this question led me to Sumaya Kassim’s famous article “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized,” which I’m sure most people in this program have read. It details her experiences as a co-curator at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, creating an exhibition that examined the museum’s colonial history. Although her exploration into the history of the museum’s artifacts was fascinating, what’s more relevant to this discussion is her struggle with the overall structure of the museum. As she put it, white supremacy and coloniality are “so embedded in the history and power structures” of cultural institutions that she was doubtful about whether decolonization could ever be achieved. Museums are made by, for, and about white audiences. Before we can think about changing museums, we have to alter their entire structure and purpose.

I’m an eternal optimist: I believe that the museum can be reconciled and, eventually, decolonized. But I think that museums have to change their definition of what that means. For the Royal BC Museum, it means more than simply changing your galleries. For the Canadian Museum for Human rights, it means more than firing your CEO and conducting staff workshops. Of course, these things are all good (especially if your CEO does nothing to combat reports of racism), and they have their place in the reconciliation process. But they also fail to fundamentally disrupt the nature of the museum, which is, I think, the true way to reconcile and decolonize.

This has been a long, deep dive into what museums are doing – and not doing – that works to create safer environments for everyone and to reconcile with communities they have harmed in the past. My final point is that it must happen in layers: change the structure, change the people, change the artifacts. If everything I’ve learned in this program is true, it won’t happen quickly. All of us who work in museums will have to ensure that reconciliation is our primary focus. But, if the end result is safer and anti-colonial museum spaces, it will be worth it. And we aren't averse to hard work, are we?

6 December 2021


 Collections Corner Kara Annett

The art conisseur herself. Source. 

​​Like many of my peers, I’m eagerly counting down the days until the end of the semester. It won’t be long before we can catch up on sleep, spend time with friends and family, and, most importantly, have a chance to catch up on shows. For me, this means binge-watching The Great (can you tell I did my undergrad in history?). In honour of the second season being released, what better collection to highlight than that of the Hermitage Museum in Russia?

Sometime during the 1750s, a Berlin merchant named Johann Gotzkowski began travelling around Europe to purchase artwork at the request of King Frederick II of Prussia who hoped to expand the royal collection. This would never come to be, as the Seven Years War devastated Prussia in Gotzkowski’s absence, leaving Frederick unable to afford the 225 paintings that had been collected for him. Luckily for Gotzkowski, one man’s misery is another (wo)man’s fortune. In 1764, Catherine the Great bought the collection – if only to rub it in Frederick’s face that Russia could still afford to make such lavish and expensive purchases. These 225 paintings would eventually grow to a collection of over three million pieces.

Cupid and Pysche by Antonio Canova. Source. 

Catherine had a bit of a shopping addiction and by 1771 her collection had outgrown the Small Hermitage. As anyone in this situation would do, Catherine had a second building constructed to accommodate her new collection, aptly called the Great Hermitage. Since there was no point in letting all this newfound space remain empty, the museum wasted no time in acquiring the collection of Baron Pierre Crozat in 1772, closely followed by that of Sir Robert Walpole’s in 1779, and the John Lyde Browne’s ancient sculpture collection in 1787.

Rembrandt's Portrait of a Young Bachelor, part of the Hermitage collection. Source

Some of the highlights from her impressive collection include multiple Rembrandts, Raphael’s Holy Family, Pieter Paul Ruben’s Bacchus, and the infamous Peacock Clock that her lover Grigori Potemkin commissioned for her in 1766. The collection housed at the Hermitage became the envy of Europe, especially amongst the French who thought they were cheated out of the Crozat’s collection by Dennis Diderot (yes, that Diderot). This didn’t deter Catherine, who remained an avid collector up until her death. Throughout the last three decades of her life, Catherine employed several agents to travel across Europe and purchase works for her rapidly expanding collection. By 1796, she had amassed nearly 4,000 paintings and established herself as one of the greatest art collectors in Europe.

The Peacock Clock. Source

It wasn’t just all fun and games though; by building up such a prestigious collection, Catherine was able to transform Russia’s global reputation from one of supposed backwardness and barbarism to the epicentre of cultural enlightenment. However, it came at a cost: while millions of rubles were being spent on art, Catherine was also quashing growing unrest amongst peasants and serfs, who continued to suffer under feudalism. Amid the Great Hermitage’s construction, a military officer named Yemelyan Pugachev led hundreds of thousands into a rebellion in response to Russia’s continued conflict with Turkey. Pugachev ended up burning Kazan and captured Tsaritsyn before he was ultimately caught and executed by Catherine’s army, along with other members of the rebellion.
The Hall of Military Fame. Source. 

It’s undeniable that Catherine the Great transformed Russia’s reputation during her rule, leading the country to become a major power in terms of arts, sciences, and education. She supposedly embraced Enlightenment ideals with the promotion of education and freedom, yet she failed to abolish serfdom and kept thousands of people enslaved in the name of maintaining power. While her ideals were at odds with her actions, her expansive collection altered the Russian cultural landscape, establishing the country as an enlightened power to be reckoned with.