Confronting Museums and Myself

In reflecting on this class and its content throughout the semester, I’ve found that the knowledge and experience I’ve learned have been applied to situations I’ve encountered outside of the classroom. One instance that comes to mind is during the Emerging Scholars Symposium for Material Culture in Wilmington, Delaware on Saturday April 23, 2016. The keynote speaker was Dr. Mique’l Dangeli, an artist-in-residence at the Scotiabank Dance Centre and Instructor for First Nations and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. The topic of the conference focused on ownership and possession of objects, and Dr. Dangeli’s talk, titled “Manifesting the Intangible: Repossession through Embodiment and Performative Practices,” discussed her experience as a First Nations woman and her community’s, the Tsimshian’s, repossession of their past and their culture.

At the beginning of her talk, Dr. Dangeli gave a welcome and introduction in her language, Sm’algyax. She also thanked the Lenape indigenous people for allowing us onto their land and gave homage to them. It is and should be customary, Dangeli argued, that every public event and ceremony should open with a homage to the original inhabitants of the land. She explained that it is ideal for a First Nations representative to be present at public events to bless the event. Not only is this a sign of respect, it is a way for organizations to form relationships with indigenous peoples. Dangeli, in a strong, stern voice, criticized Winterthur for failing to reach out to the Lenape people. Throughout her talk, she revealed how museums and museum professionals exist in a colonial system. Museum terminology used to describe indigenous belongings – object, artifact, item – are colonial and separate the importance and significance of these belongings – what she calls “ceremonial beings” – are lost when colonial terminology is used. She reprimands and chides museums for displacing and disassociating indigenous ceremonial beings from their social and cultural context. Instead of the museums and museum professionals being owners of ceremonial beings, Dangeli calls for these beings to be returned to their homes in indigenous communities. Dangeli frames this call for action in a personal story; nax nox – ceremonial being masks and sources of supernatural power – were unable to be legally repatriated to her community from Canadian museums. So, she and her husband, an artist, formed a dance group called Git Hayetsk to perform ceremonial dances with contemporary interpretations of the nax nox.

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At first, when Dr. Dangeli was criticizing museums and museum professionals for their treatment of indigenous ceremonial beings, I found myself feeling uncomfortable. But in remembering our class discussion guidelines, I reflected on the reasons why I was feeling upset. I discovered that my first instinct to being confronted, although not entirely directly, with the fact that museum professionals are faulty and still oppress indigenous peoples today even with their best efforts was with anger and defensiveness. I felt personally attacked. However, I quickly realized that that was not the case, that was not the point of Dangeli’s discussion. In reflecting, I allowed myself to approach the rest of her talk with an open mind. I enjoyed the opportunity to hear her speak on issues that personally affect her in regards to museums and ownership of indigenous ceremonial beings. I particularly enjoyed being challenged to think about these beings and their relationships with museums and indigenous peoples differently. Although I was quick to feel defensive, I found that the dialogue and listening skills I’ve learned from class allowed me to dismiss and push through that first, impulsive reaction. In doing so, I learned a great deal from her perspective and now can apply them to my schooling and emerging career.

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