#989 Passionate about the past
Great Expectations: Reflections on Museums and Canada
by Jack Lohman
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2019
$14.95 / 9780772673039
Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve
“Isn’t it amazing that in 2019, Canadians are so passionate about the past?” In this era seen by some as haunted by a toxic past which must be erased as quickly as possible and by others as challenged by cancel culture and destruction of our heritage, Jack Lohman stands as exemplary diplomat and eternal optimist.
CEO of the Royal BC Museum since 2012, he came to Victoria via Great Britain, South Africa, Rwanda, and Kosovo, and possibly other places [I lost count]. He wrote these ten essays in Canada for presentation nationally and internationally, maintaining a global context while fluently quoting such CanLit stars as Margaret Atwood, Pat Lowther, Joy Kogawa, Madeleine Thien, Gregory Scofield, and Gilles Vigneault.
So what is the Museum to do in the face of public and often angry questioning of its very existence. Certainly not hunker down in defence of its holdings. Certainly not renounce its role and close its doors. Examine holdings and corporate sponsorships, by all means, but Lohman calls for something more active and positive. It is both “annoying and wonderful” that people are so engaged, and museum professionals need to engage with the engagement. “If the statues are coming down, we need to be there as witnesses and guides.” Join the public debates, offer informed advice, tell stories.
Any Canadian museum, especially any British Columbia museum, is going through a fundamental and traumatic examination of the institution’s relationship with the people who have been here longest. Lohman’s preface recalls an epiphany early in his tenure when detecting in the museum’s Indigenous displays an irrational “air of extinction” incompatible with any sense of “reconciliation.”
Founded in 1886, the Museum has always honoured the province’s Indigenous heritage, for instance with Thunderbird Park and the First People’s Gallery, but as something dead or dying, on the verge of extinction, beyond likelihood of revival, something marvellous but not exactly “history.” Among my souvenirs is a guidebook from 1974 for the exhibition Modern History 1740s to 1970s. The book makes little or no reference to Indigenous people. Presumably their history ceased with the arrival of traders and Settlers. A section on the fur trade does not indicate with whom the traders traded. There is a reference when describing canneries to the “Iron Chink” with an apologetic admission “that BC was then  unfortunately affected by an acid climate of racial prejudice” towards Asian immigrants. The centrepiece of the exhibit imitated the interior of a “grand hotel” in all its White Settler glory. The First Peoples were not even recognised as objects of racial prejudice; they were simply not there.
Among the Museum holdings are numerous objects, artefacts, and human remains acquired without consent or knowledge of the Indigenous owners. Awareness levels have been growing and much has changed and continues to change. The museum published an Indigenous Repatriation Handbook in 2019, and in June 2020 Lohman posted a statement on racism on the RBCM website.
Cultural return (repatriation) of objects is less about reparation for the past, than investment in the future: “the future — of young people, of lives, of cultures, of a new Canada that thinks of itself differently.” But Lohman’s optimism is tempered by pragmatism and common sense, in this case a clear recognition of the weaknesses of hasty repatriation, including lessening of accessibility and the risk of creating cultural ghettoes “where cultures don’t mix but become isolated from one another.” Such risks, he decides, “are not reasons for not returning objects; they are problems to be solved.” There must be a long-term strategy involving a process of locating, describing, and in due course returning: “the world has changed and it’s time for certain artifacts to move on.”
In this strategy and process, the museum staff and decision makers need to include the people most concerned, and at every stage consult Indigenous knowledge and expertise. He poses the long-standing and persistent question: “Why is such knowledge ethnographic and not on an equal footing with other expertise?” Lohman knows from experiences in London and Cape Town that BC is not the only place to relegate Indigenous artefacts to an anthropological or natural history museum, but that does not make it okay. Museum staff and volunteers need to be more diverse, in ethnicity but also in age, gender, and background, to include and encourage the whole community, to stop doing things for people and start doing things with them, above all, to stop thinking of “others” and “them” and find a way to create “us.”
The Museum’s evolving experience is echoed wherever Settler communities host reminders of Indigenous history, and in British Columbia that is just about everywhere. In the 1970s several extensive petroglyph sites were uncovered on my home island, Gabriola. These were studied with care and, for the most part, treated with respect but regarded as precious relics from a distant and probably unknowable past. The Snuneymuxw, the Coast Salish peoples of the Nanaimo area, had little or no involvement. However, those who knew about the sites were never entirely comfortable. One site was readily accessible and the rock images became emblematic of the island’s prehistory, but others were more difficult to find without a guide, and the unofficial “guardians” were choosy about whom they permitted to share the secret.
Nevertheless, it was acceptable to take photographs and make rubbings of the glyphs, and to interpret them in visual art, jewellery, and t-shirts. It may have been the spectre of commercialism that alerted both the Snuneymuxw and caring Settlers to the dangers of thoughtless exploitation. When our new Museum was built in 1995, the grounds included sites for replicas of the petroglyphs, discouraging visits to the actual sites. Indigenous participation was solicited and has increased in the intervening years. The images are copyright, rubbings and souvenirs are forbidden. Education and cooperation continues. There are plans for a small amphitheatre and on-site totem pole carving.
So it goes with this energizing little book: as Lohman visualises what can be done by a moderately large museum on a national and international stage, anyone interested in the history of their own community will find themselves thinking globally about acting locally. As our tiny Gabriola museum continues to reflect the stories of the whole community, how might we reach out to share and exchange with other little museums, for instance the one down the Vancouver Island highway at Duncan, housed in a former railway station, with Coast Salish poles placed throughout the town? Or further afield to Vernon, where my family went to the museum at least twice a week all one summer long? Or really far away, to a museum in a stone house in my hometown in Quebec? If exchanging exhibits is impractical, how can we use technology to livestream to each other?
Meanwhile Lohman thinks about on-going exchanges with China. That makes three books on my desk this year to put Canada and China in one connected world context; of the others, one was about contemporary art history and the other about women’s suffrage. None of the three described China as an “adversary,” a word used far too frequently especially on television news channels. On the contrary, citing a touring exhibition to China organized in by the gold rush town of Barkerville, Lohman points out that through such connections and networks, the stories “become richer not just for local communities, but for the world their inhabitants came from.” Specifically, he comments on the economic and political impact of migration: “The west coast of Canada would be changed by its Chinese community, just as the province of Guangdong was transformed by the money sent by Canadian workers back home to support their families.”
Lohman is intrigued with the notion of objects moving about. Is displacement always a bad thing, or is it culture in motion? Most readers will know of the magnificent Totem Pole in the atrium of the British Museum. But what about the Nuu-chah-nulth whaling hat taken to Spain by the 18th century explorer Alessandro Malaspina and now on display in the Museo de America in Madrid? Are such artefacts “lost in a faraway country, or have they been found?” Also, I knew that during the Second World War Canada sheltered the Dutch Royal Family, but I was unaware that we also sheltered the Polish crown jewels. Might Canada again be a “safe haven” for refugee objects as well as people? for instance, the endangered treasures of Syria? Lohman envisions culture without borders: “a cultural reunion — one not mired in the idea of possession of in a retreat into definitions of home, but one in which the world’s cultures are moving globally. Interacting. Recombining.”
Lohman discusses stories, storytellers, and even story wars, such as the questionable genealogy of Joseph Boyden. He considers Margaret Atwood’s translation of Shakespeare’s Caliban in her novel Hag-Seed and Pat Lowther’s poem “Elegy for the South Valley” in which a concrete dam in British Columbia becomes an Egyptian pyramid and the capital of Aztec Mexico: “the dam that served/ a mine that serviced empire” becoming “Tenochtitlan going back/ to the bush and the rain.” He examines “master narratives” and critiques, for instance, the “folk-loreizing of Quebec.” Pride, war museums, post-nationalism — whatever you want to discuss, he is game.
Importantly, he does not ask anyone to sacrifice their own history in the recognition of others. The chapter “Embracing Family” acknowledges the importance of provenance, the stories giving meaning to collections, and objects as witnesses to stories. I think of three generations of wedding dresses, from 1877-1958, in garment bags in my own upstairs. We have long histories of population movement, so we need to be international and frame everything, even my grandmother’s wedding dress, in global terms.
If Lohman is a visionary, even a dreamer, he is also a good housekeeper. RBCM has “seven million objects and 2.5. kilometres of archives.” but “less than 0.01 percent of this is on public display, and very little of what we hold is digitized.” So there are problems of space, access, and preservation, and he has plans. Beyond everyday arranging and trouble-shooting, a new research facility is in the works to make those 2.5 km more readily available to researchers.
Then there is funding. Again Lohman sees the need for collaborating and, before going cap-in-hand to the public purse, to consult with other members of the Canadian Museums Association or one’s local regional association, so there can be a credible inclusive strategy to present to government.
Lohman inspires and challenges all of us who wonder what to do, what to say, while monuments tumble and narratives shift. I could share far too many quotations; here is a sampling:
There is no point moving forward if we have left everyone behind.
It’s not a question of reinventing the past, but of reinvesting it. And having the courage to move forward.
Sharing culture matters more than possessing.
Culture cannot be appropriated. Its meanings endure for people and communities, even when its material forms are absent.
To bear the legacy of past generations is to carry forward better meaning and more fruitful prospects — to hold onto what’s valuable, but to do things differently too. Looking back enables you to move forward.
Lohman’s thoughts on space as meaning and the moral future also provide abundant food for thought, as does my favourite example of his engaging ability to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear:
I have worked all over the world, and one of the things I love about Canada is the uncertainty of cultural identity.
Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications, including the foreword to Charlotte Cameron’s play, October Ferries to Gabriola (Fictive Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community. More details than necessary may be found on her website. Editor’s note: for The Ormsby Review Phyllis Reeve has reviewed books by Mona Fertig, Lara Campbell, Connie Greshner, Ken Lum, Susan McCaslin & J.S. Porter, Ian Hampton, Robert Amos, and Joe Rosenblatt, among others.
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