In a new twist in the ongoing saga of the Royal British Columbia Museum’s plan to spend C$789m ($626m) demolishing its longtime home in Victoria, British Columbia and erecting an entirely new building, a BC First Nation is urging the province to earmark part of the proposed budget for repatriating Indigenous artefacts and helping First Nations to build their own arts centres.
The Tseshaht First Nation, which has an array of cultural items in the museum including carvings and harpoon points, wrote an open letter suggesting the change in approach to the BC government. It says it has yet to receive a reply.
In a CBC Radio programme last week, Tseshaht elected chief councillor Ken Watts said, “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t get up and speak on behalf of not just our people, but the people who made those items that they have in the museum, you know, ancestors who aren’t here anymore.”
He told All Points West guest host Kathryn Marlow he would like to see the government of the province—technically still largely unceded territory due to outstanding treaty issues—consult with each of the First Nations whose items are in the current museum to gauge their preferred outcome, noting that the Tseshaht would like their items to be returned to their community.
“That alone is empowering our people to know that those once sacred items are returning back to where they belong,” Watts said.
As reported by the CBC, the BC Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture agreed that returning ancestral remains and cultural items is important for reconciliation, and said the Royal BC Museum has been repatriating Indigenous collections for “decades”. In an emailed statement sent to the CBC the ministry added, “Indigenous belongings and ancestral remains will continue to be available throughout the project for the purpose of repatriation.”
Whatever the fate of the museum’s costly reconstruction project, it has become a crucible for BC’s colonial history. When it first opened in 1886, in the former provincial legislative building, it was in response to concerns about the province’s Indigenous and natural artefacts being taken by American and European museums. Decades later BC premiere W.A.C. Bennett (1900-79) committed C$9.5m to building a new home for the museum on its present site as part of the 1967 Canadian centenary celebrations. The resulting institution was faulted for not repatriating Indigenous artefacts and not including First Nations narratives.
Now efforts to modernize both its curatorial approach and its architecture are proving controversial.
Meanwhile, in a recent op-ed in Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper, former museum directorMartin Segger—who has served on the board of Unesco’s International Council for Museums and as president of the Commonwealth Museums Association—wrote that the project is “farsighted, ambitious and requires a leap of faith”.