Sharon Fortney is the Curator of Indigenous Collections and Engagement at the Museum of Vancouver. Scott Neigh interviews her about the complicated colonial history of museums and about the Acts of Resistance exhibit. It features the massive banners designed by Indigenous artists and used in an aerial blockade of tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet to oppose the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion project.
Historically, museums have often been places that have reflected how the powerful see themselves and the rest of the world. They have often been part of oppressive nation-building project, part of approaches to knowing the world that seek also to control it and exploit its resources, and connected to colonial projects where people who are understood as Other are treated as objects to be known, problems to be solved, and lesser beings to be dominated.
What is now the Museum of Vancouver was founded in the 1890s. In its earlier decades, the museum amassed an extensive collection of artefacts from Indigenous peoples, not just from local nations but from around the world. Much of this was done under the common colonial presumption at the time that Indigenous peoples were doomed to disappear. The museum was also very much part of the expression in Vancouver of the process of building the Canadian settler nation and its associated identity.
Sharon Fortney traces her heritage to Europe on her father’s side and to the Klahoose people, a Coast Salish nation whose territory is north of Vancouver, on her mother’s. She says that the mandate of the museum has changed signifcantly in recent decades. There’s a logistical element to this of course – over time, almost any museum has to narrow its scope, just due to limits in their storage space. But it is also related to changing norms and to histories of Indigenous challenge to museums the world over.
Today, the Museum of Vancouver focuses specifically on the City of Vancouver itself, and its collection rests on four pillars: reconiliaition, urban culture, immigration, and natural history. They still hold Indigenous ancestral remains and items of great cultural significance to Indigenous peoples that were obtained in inappropriate ways, but they are actively involved in repatriating such things to their nations. Today, they follow strict rules about only acquiring items related to Indigenous peoples in good ways. And they work particularly with the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples – the nations upon whose territories Vancouver is built – to present both Indigenous-specific exhibits and Indigenous voices and perspectives in as many of their other exhibits as they can.
The exhibit that’s the focus of today’s episode had its beginnings on a Saturday morning in July 2018. Fortney was scrolling through social media on her phone. A friend of hers had posted about her husband being part of a daring protest organized by Greenpeace. Activists, including Indigenous people, had rappelled off the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and were hanging from ropes to block a tanker ship from leaving the Burrard Inlet. The goal was to raise awareness of the threats posed by the Trans Mountain tarsands pipeline expansion project to Indigenous rights, to local lands and waters, and to the global climate.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the 2018 action – and an element that particularly caught Fortney’s attention – was that affixed to each suspension rope was a 40 foot-long pennant displaying a design by a different Indigenous artist. The banners were visually compelling, highly topical, and related to three of the four main pillars of the museum’s collection, namely urban culture (because they are protest art), reconiliation (because they are Indigenous), and the natural environment. The seven Indigenous artists who designed the penants were Brandon Gabriel, Jackie Fawn, Ocean Hyland, Ronnie Dean Harris (aka Ostwelve), Ed Archie NoiseCat, Marissa Nahanee, and Will George.
Collaboration between Fortney, the rest of the Museum of Vancouver team, Greenpeace, and the Indigenous artists have resulted in the Acts of Resistance exhibit, which is currently on display and will be up until July 2020. It is in a 2000 square foot rectangular gallery. The banners are hung so as to break up the space and give the impression of movement. There are spaces at each end of the gallery that allow people to contemplate the work while also viewing the outside environment. And at the centre is a video installation which supplements and further contextualizes the banners.
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.
Image: Used with the permission of the Museum of Vancouver.
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter