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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

Equip Museums with Indigenous Voices

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


June is National Aboriginal History Month. While most heritage events were cancelled due to the pandemic, long hours staying indoors also gave me the chance to research about all the Indigenous museums and historical sites in Canada. A handful of museums and galleries are dedicated to Indigenous history and arts, and many larger museums include Indigenous culture sections in their general exhibitions. Following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, museums have played a role in Indigenous culture education and revitalization. The narrative voice, representation, and languages used in the exhibitions are important factors that help facilitate their missions.

Aboriginal Cultures in North America. Source.

Sarah Carr-Locke states in Indigenous Heritage and Public Museums: Exploring Collaboration and Exhibition in Canada and the United Statesthat the lack of collaboration between museums and Indigenous communities could result in exhibitions with the privileged perspective of museum staff rather than that of Indigenous people. Through a case study on four museums across North America, Carr-Locke suggests that museums could address this problem by using first-person narration by the specific Indigenous community members they work with through the exhibition and hiring more Indigenous staff to make sure the voice has the right representation.

Using the case of the National Museum of the American Indian, Carr-Locke emphasized the value of the presence of Native voices. This can be demonstrated by using first-person quotations and the use of Aboriginal language, like in this title in the exhibition: “Niitsitapiisini: Our Way of Life”.

Indigenous Art, Royal BC Museum. Source.

Language is considered an important part of culture since it carries all the stories and traditions, which have no equivalent in any other language. The exhibitions where languages are treated the same as an ancient artifact might not be helpful for Indigenous culture revitalization. While language documentation provides the necessary resources for language revitalization, the two should not be considered the same, as the latter requires the engagement of both researchers and potential speakers.

The exhibition “Our Living Languages” at the Royal BC Museum was a good example of language education at museums. “Our Living Languages” not only displayed 34 Indigenous languages spoken in British Columbia and the history they connected with but also introduced an online learning portal that transformed visitors into learners. The website continued to be available and was updated regularly even after the exhibition ended in 2017.

Royal BC Museum. Source.

Traditionally, language education is the responsibility of schools and community centres. However, museums have the advantage of reaching a larger range of audiences and can become a complement to other institutions. InLucy and Lola, a children's book for Indigenous culture education, the 11-year-old twin sisters with Snuneymuxw origin learned about their Indigenous identity by going to an exhibition about residential schools with their mother and kookum (grandmother). While the adults recalled their tragic memories by looking back at the past, they recognized it as an opportunity to reconcile and move forward. Even though the characters in the novel are fictional, many families might be longing for such an opportunity, and museums are well-positioned to offer them the chance.

With new developments in technology, the methods in which the museum can engage in language teaching have multiplied. Aside from interactive exhibitions, online platforms and cell phone apps can also be helpful for language and culture education. In addition, museums could use Indigenous languages in exhibition descriptions or with virtual tour guides in general exhibitions. The best way to keep languages alive is to use them in daily life.


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