Museum Review: Listening for the Conversation: The First People's Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Article excerpt

Reviewer: Julia Harrison Trent University

On January 31, 2003 the First Peoples Hall (FPH) opened at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) in Hull, Quebec after over 11 years of planning and development. It offers a welcome relief to the limited, if dramatic, message of the houses, poles and monumental contemporary sculptures of the Native peoples, past and present of the Pacific Coast which greets all visitors to the Museum's Grand Hall. As magnificent as these original exhibits are, they privilege so singularly the Native populations of only one region of the country--and not even the ones who claim ownership of the land on which the museum stands--that they have to have served as an embarrassment to museum staff since the Museum opened in 1989. Although probably not intended, the content of the Grand Hall is reminiscent of Hollywood discourses or those of the tourism industry, fostering simplistic representations of "Indians," such that one "Indian" is read to stand for all. Museum staff has worked hard in recent years to identify that the Grand Hall includes materials from only the Native people of the North West Coast of Canada, but I am doubtful that this distinction was and is fully grasped by many visitors. Until the FPH opened, with the exception of a few temporary exhibitions, there had been little to suggest the diversity of Aboriginal populations in Canada in the Museum's exhibitions. Now once visitors find their way to the FPH's entrance after traversing the magnificent space of the Grand Hall, there is much that they can learn about the indigenous peoples of this country, the variety and richness of their cultures and their contributions to the Canadian nation.

Background to the FPH

In the late 1980s the large empty gallery behind the Grand Hall on the Museum's ground floor was designated as the FPH. This 40 000 square foot space was to house one of two permanent galleries at the Museum. The first, which was installed on the third floor and largely complete at the time of the Museum's opening, was Canada Hall. This theme park-like gallery tells the history at least in part, of European settlement in Canada.(1) In the late 1980s, preliminary plans began for the installation of the FPH. These early plans, however, were promptly shelved when they were deemed too traditional and too old-fashioned, in the midst of public debates about how Canada's Native people should be represented in the country's museums, generated by controversies surrounding 1988 The Spirit Sings exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.(2) Thus the beginning of the planning of the current iteration of the FPH is designated as having begun in 1992, following the release of the Canadian Museums Association/Assembly of First Nations Task Force report, Turning the Page (Nicks and Hill, 1992) which laid out the principles and guidelines about how, among other museological matters, exhibitions about Aboriginal people in Canada should be done.(3) They were to be collaborative undertakings between museum staff and Aboriginal people.

Such collaboration is no small task for a museum whose constituency spans the entire nation. There are over one million Aboriginal people in Canada dispersed in every region and city across the country. Who could actually represent this diverse and complex population? In the end, an Aboriginal Consultation Committee for the FPH was formed, comprised of about 30 individuals. Many of the Committee's members had pre-existing connections with CMC either as employees of cultural centres within their own communities, as artists and craftworkers, or as professional archaeologists. Others were individuals knowledgeable about their cultural traditions who were willing to come to Ottawa for regular meetings. A central concern for the Museum was that there was adequate regional representation among the group. The exact number on the Committee varied as not all members could make every meeting. Such fluidity was to characterize the personnel from both sides who were to work on the exhibit and its development over its gestation period. …