Emily Grafton gave a passionate talk about decolonizing museums on Oct. 5, 2015, as part of the Critical Conversations speaker series. She is a PhD candidate in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba and has also worked as the research-curator of Indigenous content at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Grafton spoke about the CMHR’s decolonizing approach that includes four aspects: Indigenous content featured in every gallery; community collaboration; highlighting Indigenous voices and worldviews; and demonstrating rights violations as shared history in the settler-colonial country in which we all live.

Scholars that are critical of museum institutions often note that museums originated as warehouses for collections derived from imperial colonial trade. One of several outcomes of this orientation is that Indigenous peoples’ knowledge is often misrepresented in museums. One such form of misrepresentation continues today. Indigenous-based objects or assets of note are often referred to as “artifacts” when exhibited. This implies that they are no longer a part of these living cultures. Grafton said staff at the CMHR refer to Indigenous materials as “bundles” or “sacred bundles” because they are imbued with life force and meaning, and they are very much an important part of the cultures they belong to and approaches to knowledge exchange.

Decolonizing a museum is fraught with challenges. For example, critics argue that only tribal or community museums can be decolonizing and that, as a Crown corporation, the CMHR is an extension of colonial power. Furthermore, they say the richness and meaning of certain Indigenous exhibits may be lost on non-Indigenous people who may not know how to approach Indigenous-centred content.

Grafton says that while Winnipeg’s national museum is far from a decolonized museum, exhibits that show Canada’s shared history and incorporate oral tradition help bridge gaps and contextualize history from an Indigenous perspective. With the help of Indigenous scholars such as Emily Grafton, institutions such as the CMHR can continue to work towards the goal of acknowledging the impact of colonialism and empowering Indigenous voices.

Audience questions:

What happened to the bundles that were found during excavation?

All bundles and objects found during the excavation are under the jurisdiction of the Government of Manitoba.

Does oral history have the power to break down “museum speak?”

Oral traditions and historical narratives are incorporated into CMHR exhibits to help give voice to Indigenous people, to have them speak for themselves. In this way, using oral tradition and Indigenous voices helps, to some extent, to counter “museum speak” about Indigenous histories.

Audio podcasts of seminars in this series are also available.