Students, Indigenous elders collaborate to decolonize B.C. museum exhibits

Click to play video: 'Small takes big step towards reconciliation'
Small takes big step towards reconciliation
The Creston Museum in the Kootenays has found an innovative way to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into its exhibits -- through the eyes of school children. The museum has partnered with a local school and the Kootenay Band, allowing them to meet, talk, learn, and incorporate that knowledge into the museum's displays. Catherine Urquhart reports. – Jun 13, 2022

A museum in the Central Kootenay community of Creston, B.C., is getting an update, with the help of local Grade 7 students and Indigenous elders.

The project saw students from Adam Robertson Elementary team up with Ktunaxa knowledge keepers and elders from the Lower Kootenay Indian Band to assess the museum’s existing exhibits, and add Indigenous perspectives in places where they’ve been left out.

“It’s really easy for museums to fall into the trap of only showing one perspective, especially a small museum with a very small staff,” Creston Museum manager Tammy Bradford told Global News.

“We’re working really hard to change that, to get different perspectives, different people involved, and show those stories that I personally can’t tell.”

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The initiative was the brainchild of seventh-grade teacher Danielle Sonntag, who said students became deeply invested in the project.

The students and elders’ collaborations will be displayed to the public through the summer, and will form the basis for future permanent updates to exhibits.

Ki Louie, a member of the Lower Kootenay band, said the collaboration had led to “amazing projects.”

The initiative gave a voice to elders and knowledge keepers, while engaging the next generation of youth who he described as receptive and attuned to Indigenous history.

“It’s not limited to what we think of Indigenous experiences. They got to teach about their pre-history, about their actual culture,” he said.

“When you look at all of these exhibits, yeah there’s a residential school exhibit because that is a part of Canada’s history. But there’s also exhibits on hunting and science and traditional ecological knowledge, things like that — it brought that knowledge and those cultural teachings back to life.”

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Sonntag gave the example of the museum’s trapping and agriculture exhibit, which originally focused exclusively on orcharding and fruit exports. The students and elders’ contribution, she said, includes information on how the Ktunaxa traditionally grew crops and conducted trapping.

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“It wasn’t just the stereotypical hunting and gathering, so we’re adding that knowledge in,” she said.

“I say adding with an emphasis, because we don’t want to change the exhibits, we’re not erasing history, we’re not getting rid of something. We’re adding a new perspective to it.”

Grade 7 student Claire Wyett said her project involved contributing information to an exhibit built around an old-style pop bottle stand. Her group created a poster to go with the exhibit with information about the harmful effects pop has had on Indigenous communities with a higher rate of diabetes.

“At first it was a little bit scary, knowing it was going to be here for a long time, and doing it seemed like a lot but it actually ended up being really fun and working with the elders was awesome,” Wyett said.

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Royal BC Museum begins closing two exhibits as part of ‘decolonization’ process

She said students heard “amazing stories” from the elders and were surprised about some of the things they learned.

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“Looking at different things, and it was like, ‘Is that actually still going on? I thought that was in the past.’ But it’s really not,” she said.

“The last residential school closed in the ’90s. Pretty recently.”

Bradford said the concept of decolonization is being put into practice in museums across the country, but that this is the first case she’s heard of youth collaborating with their local Indigenous community to move forward.

She said she’d love to see it taken up in school districts across the province.

“It’s thrilling for me to be able to host this sort of intercultural and multigenerational collaboration here at the museum,” she said.

“Our intention here at the museum is to take these ideas and over the next few years incorporate them into the exhibits, so the students and the elders are shaping what we will be presenting here.”

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