17 November 2018


Collections Corner | Carly Hall

What do you do when you want to procrastinate productively during reading week? Go to a museum talk!

Entrance to the Gardiner Museum, Toronto, Ontario. Photo courtesy of Carly Hall.

On Wednesday November 7th, the Gardiner Museum hosted a brilliant panel titled "Power and Possession: The Ethics of Collecting." Moderated by Sean O’Neill, the panel was comprised of individuals with different experience in museums: Dr. Mark Engstrom (Deputy Director of Collections & Research at the ROM), Candice Hopkins (Senior Curator of the Toronto Biennial of Art and co-curator of the SITE Santa Fe biennial, member of Carcross/Tagish First Nation), and Adrian Stimson (interdisciplinary artist exhibited nationally and internationally, Siksika Blackfoot Nation). The panel coincided with the Gardiner’s special exhibition Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics; however, the discussion was geared toward how museums practice ethical collecting, using Sir William Van Horne’s collection featured in Obsession as the starting point for conversation. In this post, I will summarize the panelists' opinions on two themes: narratives and practice, and repatriation.

Before a real discussion on the exhibition and ethics of collecting could begin, moderator Sean O’Neill provided some context on Sir William Van Horne. Born in America, Van Horne moved to Winnipeg in 1881 to help with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The construction of the CP Railway was done primarily by Chinese labourers, who received less pay and lived in poorer conditions than White labourers working on the railway. In 1889, he move to Montreal, settling in a mansion located on the Golden Square Mile. During Van Horne’s residency, 70% of the Canadian economy was controlled by the small group of men living in this neighbourhood. O’Neill also highlighted that as the President of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (appointed in 1888) and overseer of its expansion into Western Canada, Van Horne was complicit in the displacement and cultural genocide of Indigenous and Metis communities.

Portrait of Sir William Van Horne. Source.

Narratives and Practice

When it came to identifying the primary issue of Obsession, all panelists agreed that the problem was Sir William Van Horne himself. The exhibition lacks an uncritical analysis and contextualizing of Van Horne as 19th century industrialist, which lead to O’Neill’s first question for the panel: “What is our obligation to contextualize exhibitions?”

Candice Hopkins began by stating that museum professionals are faced with a “deeply unethical field,” for which “there is no playbook.” Therefore, institutions must attempt to establish and negotiate authority and advocacy for artists and communities, and strive to provide transparency in their collection practices. An example of this would be providing greater availability of an object's provenance to the public.

Dr. Engstrom agreed that there is an obligation for contextualization and the consultation of communities being represented in exhibitions. The responsibility to reach out to the community lies with the curatorial team; it’s “not enough to have the singular authoritative voice of the curator.” Regarding the ROM’s Indigenous collection, the risk of dubiously acquired objects has led curators to attempt to clarify all gaps in the provenance of any given object, and make these records publicly available in the archives.


Adrian Stimson was the first to state the obvious: Canada does not have a working repatriation legislation. Instead, communities must rely on advocacy and activism if they want an object to be returned. Stimson recalled the efforts of his own community to repatriate Blackfoot materials; 4000 letters were sent to 4000 museums around the world, and only 400 museums responded that they were in possession of Blackfoot material culture. The act of repatriating materials is more complex than simply returning an object. As Stimson noted, materials need to be properly housed to prevent damage; unfortunately, not all Indigenous groups have the monetary power to build the storage complexes necessary to house repatriated objects.

The ROM is certainly no stranger to repatriation requests. According to Dr. Engstrom, there have been an increase in requests to have Indigenous objects repatriated. Dr. Engstrom gave a basic depiction of what repatriation looks like at the ROM: a letter of interest for an object is sent from a community, the request is sent to the Board of Directors, the Board approves, and the object is sent home. “Ultimately, the institution has the say for repatriation,” which means that the ROM decides an object’s cultural patrimony when faced with multiple claims of an object from different communities.

Hopkins suggested that it would be more productive and equitable for a repatriation request to go to an external committee. Dr. Engstrom agreed, and then in a moment of candour he stated perhaps the biggest worry of the Board (and arguably of all museums with deep colonial roots): “If we give one thing away, do we then give away all objects of all cultures?” Cue the awkward silence.

The night concluded with drinks, amazing one-on-one conversations, and after-hours access to Obsession. Before I left I took one last stroll through the gallery, reflecting on the panel and viewing the exhibition more critically than I had during my first visit. I couldn’t get Dr. Engstrom’s last question out of my head. Institutions should certainly repatriate objects to communities with legitimate claims – but what does this mean for the future of museums and collections? At the moment I honestly can't say, but it's absolutely worth thinking about.

The Gardiner Museum will be hosting Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics until January 20, 2019.

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