Museum Serves First Nations and All Canadians

by Reuel S. Amdur

The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau (Hull), across the river from Ottawa, is truly First Nations-friendly. The museum collection contains some 54,000 Aboriginal historical objects, of which around 11,000 are Inuit, the rest being Indian and Métis. As Andrea Laforêt, chief of ethnology service at the museum put it, “Our collection is the only one in Canada that is national in scope.” At times, the collection is also enhanced by borrowings from private individuals. Many Aboriginals visit the collection to do research.

Permanent First Nations exhibits consist of the Grand Hall and the First Peoples Hall. The Grand Hall, which is the stunning centrepiece of the museum, contains a massive display of totem poles and six West Coast Indian house façades, constructed by First Nations builders and artisans using cedar from the coast. The Hall also houses a large sculpture by Bill Reid, the Haida artist.

The First Peoples Hall traces Canadian Aboriginal history back 20,000 years. This hall portrays the diversity of Aboriginal cultures and delves into Aboriginal pre-history. In part of the hall Aboriginal attachment to the land is the focus, and elsewhere the impact of the contact with the white settlers is featured.

In addition to concrete historical artifacts and contemporary art, the museum also houses films and recordings. Films date back as far as the 1920’s, and the collections also contain music, with wax cylinders of music from Skeena River and elsewhere.

The contemporary art in the collection is part of an effort to address the here-and-now. That effort is also exemplified by work that the museum is currently undertaking devoted to First Nations people in cities, where most now live.

Laforêt reports that the museum works with First Nations communities to assist in cultural preservation. It has helped the Coast Salish to revive quill basketry and is working with the Squamish to develop a cultural centre. The museum also has an Aboriginal training program in museology, providing a career opportunity for First Nations people.

In keeping with their commitment to treat their collections with dignity and cultural appropriateness, they have a repatriation policy. As a parallel, the museum strives to repatriate Canadian Aboriginal objects from foreign sources. In addition, it cooperates with First Nations to arrange for ceremonials for sacred items in its care. Six Nations practitioners come in two times a year to carry out their ceremonies, and other First Nations also perform ceremonies for their sacred objects.

The First Nations collection began in 1856 under the Geological Survey of Canada. “The major part of the collection,” said Laforêt, “was assembled between 1880 and 1930.” In 1910, an anthropology division was opened in the Survey, with a commitment to the study of First Nations history, culture, and contemporary art. Among the world-renowned anthropologists that have found a home at the museum are Edward Sapir, Diamond Jenness, and Marius Barbeau.

The Survey collections, eventually re-named the Museum of Man, were held in the Victoria Building beginning in 1910, open to the public two years later. That building is now the Museum of Nature. A checkered history of moving from location to storage to location finally came to an end in 1989, in the new building with a new name, the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The new name was meant to emphasize the cultural and historical contributions of both sexes. In 1989, the museum moved to its present location, in a building of striking design, the work of world-renowned Métis architect Douglas Cardinal. It is the most popular museum in the country.

While the First Nations and Inuit collections are a major part of the museum’s holdings, there are other Canadian historical collections as well as two other museums housed in the facilities, a children’s museum and a postal museum.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization owes a tremendous debt to the First Nations whose work it highlights and whose energies have been expended in construction of exhibits, beginning with the outstanding imaginative design of its Métis architect Douglas Cardinal. And in turn, First Nations owe the museum a great deal, in cultural and historical preservation and in assistance with their own cultural undertakings. If you’re in Ottawa for whatever reason, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is a must-see.