29 November 2017




Welcome back to the final edition of Greatest Hits 2017! Writing for this column has allowed me to look to the recent past to make sense of developments in the museum world today. With the end of the year quickly approaching, I thought it would be fitting to turn to the very recent past to make sense of the year-long “celebration” that’s about to end: Canada 150.

Official logo for Canada 150. Source

The Government of Canada has been planning Canada 150 for years as a celebration of the 150-year anniversary of Canadian confederation. From the very beginning of this project, however, many communities in Canada have rejected this celebratory narrative of Canadian history. The Government of Canada includes reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as one of the themes of Canada 150, but the celebration of Confederation is at odds with most Indigenous peoples’ experience. Indigenous peoples have lived in “Canada” for hundreds of years, so this year marks 150 years of colonial persecution, not nationhood.

Tweet from the artist who designed Colonialism 150 logo, a response to Canada 150. Source.
Where do museums fit into this Canada 150 narrative? Over the past year museums across the country have hosted exhibits that critically reflect on Canada 150. For many curators, artists, and creators, museums have provided a space to stage a counter-narrative and incorporate non-celebratory perspectives on the 150-year anniversary of Confederation. Since there have been so many fantastic exhibits that reflect on Canada 150, for my last Greatest Hits post I have included not one, but three Musings posts, all of which reflect on exhibits that challenge Canada’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience 

Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in front of the Fathers of Confederation. The Daddies, Kent Monkman, 2016. Collection of Christine Armstrong and Irfhan Rawji. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald. Source.
In February, Sadie MacDonald reviewed the Art Museum at University of Toronto’s exhibit Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. The exhibit was on display at the Art Museum from January until March 2017 and is slated to tour museums throughout Canada until 2020. Kent Monkman organized the exhibit, which spanned 300 years and included hundreds of works. I used the word “organized” because Monkman played the role of creator, artist, and curator in this exhibit as several of his own paintings, dioramas, and other pieces were included, but he also put these objects in dialogue with pieces from museums across Canada. I had to visit the exhibit four times to completely take in the exhibit’s objects and text. Sadie’s review of the exhibit immediately picks up on the fact that Monkman organized a narrative that responds to Canada 150 by exploring the Indigenous experience with colonizers that began long before 1867. Even the timeline in the exhibit is a commentary on Canada 150, as Monkman cleverly begins his narrative 150 years before confederation in 1717. Monkman uses the museum as a stage for his narrative that contests Confederation as the beginning of life in Canada.

Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art

Buffalo Seed by Jane Ash Poitras. Photo courtesy of Natania Sherman. Source.

In March, former Musings Editor-in-Chief Natania Sherman reviewed a display at the ROM entitled Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art. Unlike Monkman’s exhibit which spanned centuries and included numerous works, the display Natania reviewed was extremely small in scale. The display included four new acquisitions by the Indigenous artist, Jane Ash Poitras, and while this form of display is common, Natania examined how the works were positioned to stage an anti-colonial dialogue. Poitras paintings feature colonial symbols, like the Hudson’s Bay stripes, in dialogue with symbols of traditional Indigenous knowledge. The paintings themselves were staged next to objects like a school desk and a basket to gather herbs to create a dialogue between the art and the ethnographic objects in the ROM collection. Natania’s thoughtful review of a small exhibit proves that there are many ways to challenge Canada 150 narratives in museums.

Witness Blanket

An unknown boy in from of the Chesterfield Inlet Residential School (top). Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald. Source.
For the final exhibit review I’m including in my Canada 150 retrospective, we’re returning to Sadie but leaving Toronto. In June, Sadie reviewed Witness Blanket after visiting the exhibit at Museum London. The exhibit has been touring Canada since 2015, and currently the exhibit is slated to continue touring the country until 2021. The exhibit is composed of 887 artifacts from residential school survivors, which were collected by Carey Newman, a Kwagiulth sculptor and carver. Together, the hundreds of pieces create a patchwork of lost narratives from survivors of the schools, and in the process hundreds of narratives of loss and pain emerge. Sadie’s review examines the power of these objects curated together, both as a way for residential school survivors to heal and remember, but she also examines the power of this exhibit for the non-Indigenous population of Canada. The exhibit may have begun touring two years before Canada 150 celebrations began, but the powerful counter-narratives take on another layer of significance when remembering confederation. 

I tried to provide a brief snapshot of some of the important, challenging, and brave exhibits that have responded to Canada 150. If you have the time please read the amazing reviews of each exhibit! The exhibits take different approaches to staging a counter-narrative in the museum, from a small display of new acquisitions, to creating a dialogue between artifacts and contemporary art, to creating a collage of objects of trauma. These counter-narratives in museums are likely to continue for years to come, especially with many of these exhibits touring years into the future. Museums may help shift the legacy of Canada 150 from a celebration of nationhood to a rejection of colonial glory.

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