Museums need to be updated to reflect integrated rather than segmented histories

The divide between Western “modernism” and Indigenous “history” is damaging

Updating the ways that museums curate their content is a crucial part of decolonization. Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Museums are crucial cultural depictions of history. To represent history responsibly, they should be updated to reflect a more inclusive history. Recently, Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum has planned to modernize its building to address structural issues, and, more importantly, to reassess how the museum represents history in order to move away from a dominant white settler perspective. 

Typically, museums present history through a colonial context. Unfortunately, this means that when museums show a version of non-European history, they frame it through a lens of progress toward civilization, often putting Western achievements at the end of this linear progression scale. This implies that non-European civilizations are less advanced, as if their growth is somehow stuck in the past, which is untrue. Museums need to take steps to responsibly present history by not assuming European culture as the objective end standard, but rather including the perspective of other non-European communities with equal weight. 

Currently, the prevailing themes in the “Becoming B.C.” exhibit — discovery, adventure, frontiers, and pioneering — focus on a white, male settler perspective of the colonization process of British Columbia. This alienates non-European communities’ perspectives while creating the impression that there is a divide between white and Indigenous history. In the end, although the museum’s one section on Indigenous history is generally well-regarded and informative, the primacy given to the settler perspective in the “Becoming B.C.” exhibit erases Indigenous contributions to the formation of British Columbia, and relegates Indigenous peoples to the past. 

That museums curate history in favour of the European settlers is no surprise, given their roots in colonial expansion and so-called “cabinets of curiosities” — collections of items brought back to Europe during the age of exploration. However, other communities’ histories are appended as accents to the dominant Western colonial history in this presentation. 

Museums should move away from colonial framing and toward including non-European history as part of dominant history. This is something that should be handled thoroughly, in consultation with non-European parties to best decide how to represent history without placing primacy on the West as “modern” and the progressive end point. They must support efforts to help people learn about the land that they are on by giving Indigenous communities space and power to make suggestions on how museums can move forward to be inclusive and accurate.

We at SFU have not been exempt from presenting history by putting colonial actors in the forefront. The Charles Comfort mural, recently taken down after having been on display since 2004, has been blasted for its distasteful glorification of a false colonial history — something that has rankled SFU students for years. The painting depicted European explorers with the Indigenous people in the background of the colonial narrative. 

This depiction was not only inaccurate, but incredibly offensive, as it framed Indigenous people as passive. When the painting was acquired, the school’s vice-president university relations, Warren Gill, said that it could be used to provoke discussion on fundamental issues such as colonialism and First Nations’ experiences. However, this hurt the students more than it taught, and served as a lesson that a people’s trauma should not be treated as a teachable moment.  

SFU still has a long way to go in decolonizing its art collection, as the corridor where the Comfort mural had been still has “Indigenous” art provided by a non-Indigenous artist. We can better present the history of the land around us by being inclusive and accurate to all the actors who helped shape it. To do this, we must give space to people whose voices have been excluded or minimized by Western conceptions of history.