23 November 2018

"DIVERSITY IS A REALITY. INCLUSION IS A CHOICE."



Quite literally, the program begins with a bang. The All Nations Juniors: Drum Circle from the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre renders the room, previously humming with chatter, silent. Their drum and their voices are powerful. It is impossible not to think about whose land we are sitting on, whose artifacts are being housed downstairs, and whose voices having been missing from museum conversations.

I am sitting in Bronfman Hall at the Royal Ontario Museum, and like everybody else here, I am captivated by these young drummers.

The All Nations Juniors: Drum Circle, Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre starts the program with powerful drum circle. Photo courtesy of Samantha Summers.
I’m here before the museum even opens to celebrate the 10th anniversary of ROMCAN (the Royal Ontario Museum Community Access Network). ROMCAN is a program that partners with community organizations and initiatives to provide free and special access to the ROM for individuals who have traditionally been excluded from its walls. If I have ever doubted that the museum community is up to the task of inclusivity, my doubts have been quieted by this event. Everybody who is here today has come with the purpose of celebrating and empowering accessibility initiatives.

I speak with Candice Gurwitz, Associate Director of Family Services and Programs at Ronald McDonald House Charities Toronto. She is there on behalf of Ronald McDonald House, which is a ROMCAN partner. The children living in Ronald McDonald House generally cannot leave it. Their immune systems are too weak to risk visiting the ROM in person, so instead the ROM brings a “Mini Museum” to Ronald McDonald House every month and museum volunteers facilitate programs for the kids. These programs allow them to have fun, learn, and engage with artifacts in ways they otherwise couldn't do from the Ronald McDonald House. I make a comment about the importance of letting kids just be kids, and Candice nods. “For the ROM it’s a way to give back, and for our families it’s a way to go to the museum,” she tells me. After all, I think later, all kids deserve the opportunity to be amazed by dinosaur fossils.

A thank-you card written to the ROM from a group of children from L'Arche Toronto, featuring a drawing. "Thank you for the tickets. The dinosaurs were cool and I liked them. Michael, Sabrina, Julie, Thomas, Jonny. [The picture is of] A baby T-Rex eating meat." Photo courtesy of Samantha Summers.
The drum circle gives way to opening remarks from Elder Shishigo Gijig of the Whitesand First Nation. She warmly welcomes us all to this event and to the ROM, and clearly is very excited to be here. I later learn from her that she is a longtime volunteer in the First Peoples gallery. She is excited to learn that I’m a student at the University of Toronto, and tells me about her daughter and grandson who are both pursuing degrees at the University of Toronto as well (a Master’s degree and a Bachelor’s degree, respectively). She is filled with warmth and buzzing with energy, off to visit the First Peoples gallery before heading home.

Speeches follow from Josh Basseches (Director and CEO, ROM), Minister Michael Tibollo (Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Ontario), and Mayor John Tory. When Yasmine Mohammed, the Director of the Cultural Access Pass Program at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, speaks, I’m stopped in my tracks. “Diversity is a reality,” she announces to the room. “Inclusion is a choice.” It’s a succinct and powerful summary of why we are all here. It’s a call to action.

ROMCAN has brought 700 000 visitors to the ROM for free since it began ten years ago. It has partnered with 100 community groups to provide services, programs, and access to members of our community who otherwise may not be able to visit. The most invigorating part of my morning is talking with those community members and hearing what role the ROM plays in their communities and their lives. Listening to what this museum means to so many different people is like visiting the ROM for the very first time.

The program ends with the most heartfelt choir performance I have ever heard, as the Bruised Years Choir sings R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” This choir is comprised of people living with mental illness and addiction. Their lived experiences shine through their voices as they sing about loneliness, pain, and community. It is the perfect way to end this program. We, the audience, are reminded that although museums have been places of hurt, they can also be places of healing.

Members of the Bruised Years Choir sing R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts." Photo courtesy of Samantha Summers.
I catch up with some choir members after they sing to ask what they thought of the event. “It felt like an honour,” Julie Crann tells me. “It feels good to be contributing to things like this,” Dorothy Laxton adds. As much as people are excited to be invited in, they are excited to be giving back. I speak with J’net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth, the Indigenous Outreach and Learning Coordinator at the ROM, who tells me about the various initiatives the ROM’s Learning Department has developed to engage with Indigenous communities. She is particularly excited about the ROM Youth Cabinet, which is Indigenous-led but welcoming of all young people, and which allows young people to collaboratively develop programs in the ROM. With this group she is facilitating exactly what I and many other young museum professionals are hoping to facilitate in our own careers; a place for communities to heal and grow together.

As I pack up my too-bulky backpack and step out into the now-open museum, with school field trips bustling around me at whirlwind speeds (though stopping to admire the bat display), Yasmine’s words ring in my ears. “Diversity is a reality. Inclusion is a choice.”

Attendees mingle and chat following the program. Photo courtesy of Samantha Summers.

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