How can museums participate in transitional justice, which seeks to address massive human rights violations? In this episode, Suse is joined by Omar Eaton-Martínez and Dr. Karine Duhamel to explore the implications of truth and reconciliation in museums. Dr. Duhamel has written that reconciliation “as a process based on hope, remains the core animating principle of a collection of stories that brings together the importance of Indigenous worldviews, the need to acknowledge violations as shared history, and the priority we place on empowering communities to share their stories.” In a time when truth has been greatly complicated by politics, there is still significant value in the act of truth-telling.
Omar Eaton-Martínez leads the Prince George’s County Historical Resources and Historical House Museums, which includes the programming of those sites with an emphasis placed on preserving, sustaining and enhancing these resources as well as engaging and building communities through education, outreach and innovation. Most recently, he managed the interns and fellows program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He builds coalitions that support diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. Omar has worked at the National Park Service, the Office of the National Museum of the American Latino Commission, NASA and he also was a K-12 teacher in NYC and DC. His research interests are Afro Latinx identity in museum exhibitions, Diversity and Inclusion in museums and cultural institutions; and Hip Hop history, culture and education. Omar holds a Bachelor of Arts in African-American Studies, a Masters in Educational Leadership, and is currently a PhD student in American Studies at University of Maryland, College Park.
Dr. Karine Duhamel is Anishinaabe and Metis and holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Manitoba. Dr. Duhamel was formerly Adjunct Professor at the University of Winnipeg where she developed and taught courses on the history and legacy of residential schools and on Indigenous relationships with the state. She has also worked as Curator for Indigenous Rights at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights focusing on developing exhibits and programming focused on truth and reconciliation, as well as the history and contemporary legacies of colonialism. She is responsible for important revisions in process and in content within the institution. Dr. Duhamel is currently on leave from the Museum working as Director of Research for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls until the end of its mandate, in April 2019.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson (SA): Good day and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the Progressive Museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I will be your host today as we explore boundary pushing practice in museums in all its forms. Since the early 1970s countries around the world have held Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which are aimed at unearthing official truths about significant and large scale human rights violations.
These commissions fall under the banner of Transitional Justice, which seeks to address massive or systematic human rights violations that are so severe they cannot be dealt with adequately via the normal justice system. Commissions make recommendations for specific actions for justice, often with a focus on restorative justice, seeking to negotiate a resolution that will satisfy all of those involved.
In some cases those recommendations have specifically addressed national museums and their role in bringing justice for the victims of conflict or human rights violations. Today on Museopunks, we’re going to talk about truth and reconciliation. My first guest, Omar Eaton Martinez, recently wrote a piece of speculative fiction which imagine museums as advocates for human rights and healing through the use of truth telling.
My second guest, Karine Duhamel examined some of the work she was involved with as curator of indigenous content at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which was specifically focused on truth and reconciliation. One quick note before we start, my interview with Dr. Duhamel faced some pretty severe technical difficulties and I was torn between leaving the interview off, or including it despite those technical challenges we had in the recording.
Her answers are so good that I’ve decided to share them, but it’s not the prettiest listening that you will ever encounter. I apologize for the sound quality and for the abrupt end to the interview, but I think you’ll find that what is in there is really worth listening to. Okay, catch you after the jump.
Omar Eaton Martinez leads the Prince George’s County Historical Resources and Historical House Museums, which includes the programming of those sites with an emphasis placed on preserving, sustaining, and enhancing these resources as well as engaging and building communities through education, outreach, and innovation. Most recently he managed the interns and fellows program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
He builds coalitions that support diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Omar has worked at the National Park Service, the office of the National Museum of American Latino Commission, NASA, and he was also a K-12 teacher in NYC and DC. His research interests are Afro Latinx identity in museum exhibitions, diversity and inclusion in museums and cultural institutions and hip hop history, culture and education.
Omar holds a Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies, a Master’s in Educational Leadership and is currently a PhD student in American Studies at University of Maryland College Park. Omar, welcome to Museopunks.
OEM: Thank you so much Suse for inviting me to speak with you today. I’m excited about our conversation.
SA: Oh, me too. I am really excited. I’ve been doing a little bit of reading and research in preparation and this is such a meaty topic. To get into it, you recently contributed an essay about truth and reconciliation in museums to Museum 2040, which was a special future- focused edition of Museum Magazine. Let’s kick it off by talking about why you felt drawn to this topic and also what the argument was that you made in that essay.
Omar Eaton Martinez (OEM): Well, I think what drew me to this topic was the idea of social justice in museum work. Centering my work as someone who really deeply cares about social justice, where it translates through the work of diversity and inclusion and looking at accessibility and equity issues as well. But when I really started thinking about social justice the last few years, I started thinking that there’s a difference between talking about being an advocate for civil rights as opposed to being an advocate for human rights.
I found a much deeper connection to be an advocate for human rights. I think if we start thinking about the differences between just civil liberties and things that are hampered by or influenced by policy and legal things, then we think deeper than that because we know that we all say that we value human life, that we all say that we value humanity. But then sometimes our actions, our policies, our rhetoric were pretty much show something different.
That’s what drew me to this idea of truth and reconciliation. I actually had met a woman last fall who had done a little. She was going through a leadership program in her sector. She’s in higher ed and she had done some research about truth and reconciliation and she had heard me speak about some of my diversity inclusion work. We started having a conversation around truth of reconciliation and how that might look in the museum sector.
Then at the same time, Elizabeth Merritt had talked to me about writing something about social justice and diversity inclusion for this 2040 issue and that’s when I started thinking about let’s play with this idea of truth and reconciliation and getting into the role of futurism, which was the very first time I ever even played with futurism as the lens for this type of work, which I found to be incredibly useful.
Then that’s how I started to apply truth and reconciliation based on some of the very elementary research that I did on truth and reconciliation commission primarily in South Africa, Canada and some other places.
SA: Yeah, it’s interesting to actually hear you sort of differentiate and talk about a civic rights versus human rights. I think when we start talking about these concepts that we have truth and reconciliation, they’re incredibly big concepts, but they have fairly specific meanings in this context. Can you talk a little bit about what we mean by truth and what we mean by reconciliation when we’re talking about human rights and when we’re talking and thinking about what that means for museums?
OEM: Yeah, I think how I look at truth and reconciliation is sort of a coming together where you understand that there has been these institutions that we call museums and other like-minded institutions have really taken a stance on telling certain historical narratives or privileging certain types of art and culture or even going off in the science museums and teaching people about science in a certain type of way.
When I think about truth and reconciliation, I think there’s been a lot of misinformation about certain demographics, whether we talk about ethno-racial demographics, gender, religion, geographic or even, sexuality or gender biases, gender identity biases. There’s been a lot of misinformation. Now, as we continue to progress in our understanding through scholarship and through other social engagement and social activism, we’re starting to see that we’ve been treating certain people wrong.
I think the idea about the truth part of the reconciliation is the being honest about what the things that we have discovered, being honest that we have not treated a certain demographics as fully engaged human beings in our society. When we’re able to be honest, we’re able to come to a point of our mea culpa, an idea that we’re able to be honest and apologize about these atrocities that have occurred in the past and either trophies all have legacy.
It’s a spectrum of time that we’re thinking about here, that we’re not folklore sizing the idea of first nation genocide in our country, that we’re not folklore sizing the enslavement of African people. That we’re not folklore sizing this long, long history of immigration so that we understand that all of these things have legacies and they affect how we interact with each other today and how we value certain lives over others.
With truth we’re able to be honest about that. Then it puts us in a position of humility and that puts us in a position where we actually can be reconciled with groups, whether what side of the aisle or what side of the Hajime that we’re talking about, because we know that there’s people in power. There are people and other not in power. That’s sort of the binary that we work from. We’re trying to blur that line to divides that binary by being truthful and putting ourselves in the position we can reconcile together as a country and as the larger global society.
SA: One of the things that I think is quite interesting in the Museum 2040 piece and you mentioned, the Equal Justice Initiative, which was founded by Bryan Stevenson. Now, one of the things that Stevenson has spoken about is an idea that truth and reconciliation are not simultaneous, but rather that they are sequential. That truth telling has to come first. Do you agree with this idea that the truth has to be the foundation upon which any form of reconciliation is built?
OEM: I believe that whole heartedly and for me personally, I look at it from my faith perspective as a Christian that when you are supposed to, when you are saying sorry about something, you’re not just saying sorry randomly like a robot with no type of understanding of what you’re saying sorry to. In order for you to have an understanding of what you’re saying sorry, you have to understand what the truth is, so that knowledge and content portion thatI believe Bryan Stevenson is referring to.
You’re educating people about this truth and then this truth are then pricking you to understand that you’ve been wrong. Then you are now repenting, you’re repenting and you’re turning away from those wrong ideas of dehumanization that you’ve had over certain populations and cultures. Once you’ve turned away from that misunderstanding that miseducation, now you’re in a better position to say, “I’m sorry,” and be reconciled.
SA: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think about museums and all the heritage sites that maybe skip through that difficult work because it seems like the sort of truth telling requires a lot of internal work. I wonder whether there are institutions that you’ve seen that are seeking to move to the providing reconciliation stage without dealing with their own internal truths and what the effect of that is.
OEM: Well, I don’t know if I have any concrete success stories right now. I think what’s happened in the past, in the histories of our institutions is that when with certain populations see that they’ve been marginalized and they’ve been dehumanized, they kind of contend with those in power. Then they get rebuked by those in power and then they build their own institutions, right?
That’s what I think has been happening over the iterations of museums since the very beginning, probably looking at what’s happened most recently in the 60’s or 50 years ago when you had this movement of a lot of people advocating for poor people and for people of color and other marginalized communities.
Then the result of that in this country where things like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museo del Barrio or in Harlem in New York, The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, which is now the Anaconda Community Museum in D.C. under the Smithsonian Institution. Those things were as a result of people of advocates of activists who were rebuking the power structure, got frustrated with that power structure and then built their own institution as a result of that. I think that’s the closest example I know of where you have some people answering that.
SA: Yeah, it’s interesting you talking about people basically going off and creating their own institutions when the institutions that exist don’t work for them. There are a number of museums around the world, including within the US that do memorialize these histories of genocide and of human rights abuses, whether we’re talking about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, the Genocide Museum in Rwanda or something like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC.
Is this something that all museums need to be grappling with these ideas of truth and telling stories that have not yet been told in the stories of human rights abuses? Or is it enough that there are specific museums focused on the stories that have truth and reconciliation at the core of what they’re doing?
OEM: Yeah, and I think it really has to be done in both ways and possibly a third one that we are not thinking about right now. I think that this is a truly systemic issue. Now, we’re dealing with systemic issues there’s no way that you can tackle it through one conduit. If we’re looking at, we’re considering the conduits that you mentioned, which are people building their own institutions in a rebuke to the existing larger sector, or if you’re talking about people who are dealing with these larger institutions that exist already in trying to change those things.
I think both of those things had to be done simultaneously for systemic change to occur. Because then what you have, if you just do one way or another is that you’ll have, if you’re just doing it with the institution building then those institutions can end up being marginalized in the largest sector and they already have in some instances.
Or you could have some people just trying to build the institutions or trying to change the larger institutions which can take a lot longer and not necessarily uplift a lot of the good work that the culturally specific museums or the other museums like that you mentioned, like the Holocaust Museum or The Museum of Tolerance and things like that uplifting that work as well is what’s also necessary.
Because they’ve been able to focus on those communities and that narrative and do that difficult work in a way that some of the predominantly, the traditional institutions have not been able to do. I really feel strongly that they have to happen both ways and hopefully in concert with one another. Because then, you have these larger institutions they may have not had much success in dealing with it.
Then you get the privilege to work with some of these smaller or midsize institutions that had been very successful in doing it and that way both organizations are acknowledged for what they can bring to the table.
SA: When we think about then how museums are working going forward. Part of what we’re talking about are a set of mechanisms for restorative justice. There are certainly, as you say, new institutions that can be built that have this at core but people in all kinds of institutions can really bear witness. I think that’s a lot of what you’re talking about is this idea of bearing witness as a part of healing. Is that part of what’s so critical in this process?
OEM: Yeah, I think so. If I understand what you’re saying in terms of bearing witness is acknowledging the things that are happening around them. Obviously one of the biggest I guess social movements, especially through social media that affected our sector is things like museums respond to Ferguson and with Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown, bringing that consciousness to the field in a new way because I definitely am very careful not.
I don’t want to make it seem like that is something new to the field from people who have been doing this work for a very long time and it’s not new, but it is something. It was brought with a new twist and a new flavor and arguably a new set of a new generation of professionals who really care about this work.
I’m really happy that Aleia and Adrianne we’re able to bring that in such a powerful way to engage the sector in a way they haven’t been engaged with from that generation and just more in more recent times. It really caused these apps to say, “Hey man, what are we doing when these police killings occur? Or what are we doing when these different atrocities are still happening today in 2018?
Do we have to wait 50 years to address these things if we are history museums?” Because sometimes that’s sort of the parameters that some museums have set for themselves in terms of dealing with public history, or do we make an exception for this because it’s race it’s just such a high level in the media that we have to address it in order to maintain relevancy. For me it’s all the above.
SA: Are there certain exhibitions or exhibitions on certain topics that museums simply shouldn’t be doing any longer? Are there exhibitions that could exacerbate the ongoing human rights abuses or inequitable conditions that people of color face in this country or that in fact many people from historically excluded and underrepresented groups face?
OEM: Good question, the biggest thing in public history, that I guess touches that question you are posing is the idea of confederate memorials and should they continue to be up and if they are why and how. There’s been a lot of movement obviously to take them down. I think the movement has been since then has been fairly successful with maybe a few exceptions, but then what do we do with these monuments should they be destroyed?
Should they be studied or contextualized? For me, I think it definitely has to be contextualized. I’m not too sure if they need to exist in another space. I know some people think about maybe they should be put in a museum. The museum can frame it in a way where people can engage in conversation. I’m not too sure about that only because those statues tend to cause a lot of trauma for people.
I think that’s where the truth and reconciliation piece really plays a big role because I believe of the society as a collective, understood the trauma that causes people. And we were able to create an intimate space of conversation and dialogue around that trauma, that I don’t think people would be so quick to want to continue to display those statues in any way. That’s just my speculation based on the conversations and the research that I’ve done.
I’m definitely not trying to espouse that completely or right about that at all. I think that’s something that we’re going to still have to continue to work out and dialogue and try new things with. But I’m really eager to see how the public history, the museum sector address it because it needs to be addressed. I think we need to try some things and see how it goes and play close attention to evaluate the responses of the visitors and evaluate the curatorial practices around these new issues and how they engage with those statutes?
SA: Yeah, when you talk about something like the confederate monuments were talking about taking things down, taking them off of view, figuring out where they live. Another part of this then becomes a question of reparations and where the reparations need to be part of this discussion in some way and what that looks like for museums as well.
OEM: Yes, I will tell you one of the things I think I’ve talked a little bit with Beth Merritt and some other people about the essay I was able to write was I had a chance to do it over again or to maybe create a newer version of it. I would have liked to spend some more time on applying the futurism lens on what reparations could look like.
I really think when I studied more about truth and reconciliation, especially the Commission of South Africa, it seems to me the biggest contention on shortcoming of the commission was the reparation piece. How can we learn from those lessons, those hard lesson that South Africa has learned from and they’re still learning from about that shortcoming? I think one of the things for me is how do we educate people about this truth? How do we look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in museums?
Instead of like thinking about a personal payout to a demographic of people, how do we look at taking some monies and applying them to museums and other educational institutions who are grabbing the truth about things like the enslavement of Africans, the genocide on first nations, the racialization of immigration policies and how they differ depending on where people are coming from and shedding more light upon that through K through 12 education, but also informal education and hopefully a really organized marriage between the two.
SA: Yeah, I think one of the other things that is quite interesting or that I’ve been thinking about a lot is we’re living in this time where the term post truth has started to come up and it’s being used to really indicate circumstances when public opinion is shaped by appeals to emotion and to belief rather than to facts, where truth is sort of almost superseded in search of an emotional hook.
Now, this is pretty challenging for museums who swim in the language of truth and facts. Yet we’re also having these conversations in the sector about the importance of acknowledging a lack of neutrality in museums. How do we balance this need for truth telling and the emotional gravity of telling truths that are either unheard previously or maybe unpopular?
If museums are thinking about these ideas of truth and reconciliation, how do they in fact, I guess reconcile their own truths and come to an honest space for dealing with that?
OEM: It’s a great thing to consider Suse, because I think there certainly have been times where emotions can begin to skew certain narratives, but I think we also have to take a step back and understand what exactly is being skewed. Because I think if we’re talking about an interpreter, a docent telling a group that, I don’t know, 15 million Africans were enslaved when the numbers really show 10 million.
That isn’t an embellishment meant by definition, but I think at the end of the day we understanding is that they were way too many human lives kidnapped and brought over the Atlantic for no good purpose for them and lives and the legacy of that transatlantic slave trade impacts us today, 200, 300, 400 years later. Well, I do think that the emotional and the facts can work together. I haven’t been to the site, but what I’ve seen on television and what I’ve read about it, the Equal Justice Initiative is a great example.
You have the memorial to the lynchings which are rooted in scholarship and you have a presentation of that done in a way where it’s going to emotionally engage you. You are going to understand this in a way that is going to move your emotions, but then you’re going to have factual information to back that narrative up in a way that you can contextualize and build meaning for yourself.
Another example would be there was an exhibition that existed in New York back in 2015 that I did some research on which was called Presente, The Young Lords in New York. Now, the Young Lords were sort of where most people would describe easiest as the Puerto Rican version of the Black Panther Party. They actually worked in coalition with the Black Panther Party among other like minded organizations around poverty and oppression of people of color.
They did a three part exhibition in the Bronx Museum of Art at El Museo del Barrio and the Lower Eastside Cultural Center in lower eastside in Manhattan, and which were all three locations where they had chapter offices for the Young Lords. They did a great job in talking about the fight that they had against police brutality, the fight that they had against poor public housing, the fight that they had against poor public health for Puerto Rican people and other people of color in those areas.
It was an emotional time, but it was rooted in fact, and in scholarship when it was … And what I love about it was, it was the curators that were involved were from different disciplines, like Johanna Fernandez, who was an historian and she was the lead curator and did a lot of the work in the Bronx Museum of Art. Then you have people like Yasmin Ramírez who is an art historian who worked on a part of what was in Del Barrio.
Then you have somebody like Wilson Valentin Escobar who has taught history, but he’s an Americanist, he’s an American studies scholar, American civilization scholar, a Latino studies scholar was able to use an interdisciplinary approach for the curation he did at the Lower Eastside Cultural Center. I think that there’s ways where you can have different levels of scholarship even for different disciplines rooted in truth, through the research, but also creating that emotional tug for you to understand and really make meaning for yourself as you go through these exhibitions and learn from them.
SA: Yeah, that’s great. Omar, you serve on the board of museums which gives museum professionals of color an opportunity to be seen and heard in a paradigm that is designed to keep them invisible and voiceless. I think there are a lot of museum professionals, many museum professionals who do wish to help ensure that professionals and visitors who’ve traditionally been excluded from conversations, have a voice and are visible.
But what are some effective ways that cultural workers can do that, can help support their peers raise the visibility of museum professionals of color?
OEM: Well, certainly since you offered a free plug become a member of Museum Hue are now a non-based organization and museumhue.com. I think really it’s using, partnering and getting to know the work of organizations like Museum Hue, understanding the work of certain initiatives and movements like Museums and Race.
Also projects like Mass Action, which has been funded very well by Minneapolis Institute of Art and in really understanding what the problems are and to do a little myth breaking around things like, I can’t find a talent in certain specific or even not so specific careers within the museum sector.
I’ve sat on a couple of panels with one of the Museum Hue founders, Monica Montgomery at the American Alliance and Exams and even at the Association of African American Museums where there’s this myth that, people of color are not interested or are easy to find in this industry and I just really, I question that and I question that because there’s a couple of reasons.
One, a lot of people who are making these claims are operating from a biased lens. We all have them. I have biased lens everybody has it, right? But when you talk about operating from biased lens, what you’re really saying is you have some blind spots. In order to address a blind spot, and the best analogy I can come up with is, if when you’re driving a car, which I know everybody is not able to drive, so it may not be fully inclusive analogy.
But if you’re driving a car, even if you’re riding a bike or even if you are walking down or you’re wheelchair bound and you’re going down the sidewalk. If you are going to change lanes or if you’re going to lean to the left or lean to the right, there is going to be a certain spot in your peripheral vision that is not going to allow you to engage with, which means, you’re going to have to make some effort to turn to the left or turn the right to see that area that you cannot see naturally in your peripheral.
That’s what’s not happening in our field. Our field is not making that extra turn to the left, that extra turn to the right to see that there are people willing and able and some very well trained and educated already to do this work. That’s where organizations like Museum Hue come in where they’ve created this wonderful Facebook page.
They’ve allowed people to find out about internships, to find out about fellowships and apprenticeships where you can engage people of color who have really shown a strong interest. Some of them already have incredible resumes and some of them are emerging or are newer to the field, but still have great aptitude to do this work.
I think it’s just really about learning about all these different organizations that have really been foregrounding people of color from the very beginning. One of the great organizations that always really, I’m in awe of, when I see when I always meet somebody who either used to work there or maybe still work now is The Studio Museum.
Many museum educators, museum administrators, museum curators have come from that and it’s because you have leaders like Thelma Golden who are intentional about training up the current and next generation of museum professionals. I think if we’re more serious about the secession planning welfare, which I think is sector wide and really a problem across race in the cross gender.
Because I think everybody suffers from poor succession planning, but while we’re addressing what we’re understand is poor succession planning, let’s center, let’s take this opportunity to address that issue by centering a museum for persons of color. Giving the opportunity to coming up with a different constructs in different conduits and different pathways to allow people to grow in this field in a way that will change the whole field across the board.
SA: Yeah, and that will take us hopefully take us further along the path of telling truth event histories that are maybe not told at the moment. I think it’s, you talk about, sort of representation and making people visible and giving them voice. I think it’d be part of changing any sector is just representation.
OEM: Absolutely, the old adage is, everybody want to see the visitors, the audiences, the stakeholders want to see themselves in a museum not just in the content but in the people who are stewarding the content. It’s across sectors that’s why I think it’s really important for us who are dealing with this work systemically that we’re also partnering with other organizations that may not be “museums or public history sites or science centers or galleries or even libraries.”
I think we need to go beyond that. The closest one I think for a lot of us is education whether that’s K through 12 or higher Ed. But I would also argue other community based organizations that are doing social advocacy for all these demographics that have been marginalized for so many generations. We need to lock arms with them as well because this is a systemic issue and it will not be resolved by any one sector.
SA: Omar, if people want to get in contact with you to talk more about these ideas or to find out more just about your work in general. What’s the best way for them to do so?
OEM: I’m happy to receive any direct messages on my twitter account. That might be the best way. That’s @OEatonMartinez, so it’s all one word @ OEA T as in Thomas, O, N as in Nancy, M as in Mary, AR, T as in Thomas, I, N as in Nancy, E, Z as in Zebra. I think if they direct message me there, that’ll be a great start.
SA: Omar, that is fantastic. I will put a link to that as well as to many or all in fact of the groups that you’ve mentioned like Museum Hue in the show notes. Thank you for coming onto Museopunks and talking about this topic with me. It’s been enlightening and super interesting.
OEM: Thanks, and I enjoyed it so much and thank you Suse for inviting me.
SA: It is such a pleasure. All right, talk to you again soon Omar.
OEM: All right, Suse.
SA: Dr. Karine Duhamel is a missionary in Métis and holds a PhD in History from the University of Manitoba. Dr. Duhamel was formally adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg where she developed and taught courses on the history and legacy of residential schools and on indigenous relationships with the state. She’s worked as the curator for indigenous rights at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, focusing on developing exhibits and programming focused on truth and reconciliation as well as the history and contemporary legacies of colonialism.
She’s responsible for important revisions in the process and content within the institution. Dr. Duhamel is currently on leave from the museum, working as director of research for the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls until the end of its mandate in April of 2019. Karine, welcome to Museopunks.
Dr. Karine Duhamel (KD): Thank you so much.
SA: It is so lovely to have you here. As I was mentioning to you just when we were briefing, this is an episode where we’re really talking about truth and reconciliation in museums. My first guest on the podcast is Omar Eaton Martinez who was really talking about his vision for truth and reconciliation in American museums, but in Canada there has been a formal truth and reconciliation process which included a Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed in 2008.
This is a fully formalized state led discussion. Can you tell us a little bit about the history and the legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how these conversations got started in a formal way in Canada?
KD: Yeah, I’m happy to do that. I think it’s really important everyone looks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as a state led initiative, but important to note that actually it was formed as a result of the largest class action settlement in Canadian history whereby survivors of the residential school system and family members of people that did not survive actually lead a lawsuit against the Canadian government.
As part of the settlement which included financial compensation on an individual basis, as well as monies for commemoration and for legacy projects. One of the settlement’s terms was the foundation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Well, the commission itself may have been state-led.
Certainly its formation was led by people who survived this genocidal system that existed in Canada for over 100 years, through which thousands and thousands of indigenous children were stripped from their families ripped from their communities forced to assimilate Euro Canadian Culture. The commission heard from survivors all over the country have held national events and heard testimony.
In the end produced a substantive report that detailed the history and the legacy of the system. Then also made a series of recommendations that it called Calls to Action. That’s important because they didn’t just want to make recommendations they wanted to call people to action. Based on the premise that before we start the process of reconciliation, we first have to engage as a society with the truth.
It set out a vision for how to build a new relationship based on an acceptance and a wider societal understanding of what actually happened to communities, to families and to children in those histories. As part of its Calls to Action, they were directed at sort of all segments of society. The Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada have had for example, really important impacts in the field of education and curriculum in this country.
But also it has specific directives for national museums as well as archives. In its 94 Calls to Action it called on museums to engage in truth telling. It sort of placed and it said and this is its own words, that museums had an ethical responsibility to foster the truth. This is from where the context of truth and reconciliation at least as we talk about it today comes from.
But in fact, of course in Canada, as in other places in the world, there were people calling for dramatic revisions to how museums did their work long before then. In Canada that was largely the result of an exhibit called The Spirit Sings, which was held during the Calgary Olympics in 1988. Really interesting exhibition and one that’s still examined a lot today for the way that it depicted indigenous cultures and nations and prompted also a series of really important calls for changes in museums.
SA: You mentioned this idea that there was a specific call to action and there were steps within that call to action. But one of the first steps towards reconciliation is clearly developing a shared understanding of what has happened and of course in what is happening going forward. But the specific language, I think that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had was that the museums should not simply tell one party’s version of the past.
But instead that the museum or the Canadian Museum of Human Rights should tell the history of residential schools and aboriginal peoples in ways that invite multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives, yet ultimately facilitate empathy, mutual respect as a desire for reconciliation that is rooted in justice.
This sounds like an incredibly complex process and even for museums that have been thinking about these issues, as you say, since at least the 1980s. How do you start discussions or in fact, where do you even pick up as a way to start dealing with conflicting perspectives and dealing with trying to facilitate empathy and respect?
KD: That’s a really good question. I think certainly one of the things that’s really important in my community, but that’s also really a point that TRC final report makes is the idea that reconciliation, truth and reconciliation are based in relationships. When you approach museum practice from the perspective of relationships, what is a very complex question that you set out and that the TRC laid out actually becomes really simple.
If I think about what it means to engage in a good relationship with someone, with you. If you and I are going to be friends, we’re going to have a good relationship and I’m going to treat you with respect. I’m not going to come to your home and let myself in and maybe sit on your couch and throw my feet up on your table and actually kick you out, eat all the food in your fridge and think that we’re okay, right?
I think from a museum point of view, one of the stories or one of the concepts that I most love that is actually not based in Métis culture at all but is based in creations history of the idea of The Two Row Wampum. The Two Row Wampum Belt being an agreement that was first made, at least with Europeans, between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch.
The belt was made of Wampum shells and you may already know it, but it has three, sorry, two purple rows of beads separated by three white rows. It goes white, purple, white, purple, white. The two purple rows represent two ships or two vessels sailing down the river and neither one interfering with its course. It represents relationship. The way that I been taught is that the white pieces of that belt the white sections, represent the values of truth, friendship and respect.
From a museum standpoint, if I think about when we’re creating stories, when we’re trying to engage people in empathy, I think about engaging them in a new relationship and a relationship that’s founded on those principles. Indigenous nations don’t have hundreds and hundreds of treaties, but there’s a really good reason. It’s not because they didn’t make those treaties, but it’s because many of those early agreements, particularly between first nations were agreements that were based on principles.
You don’t need to renegotiate a principle. It just is. It may look different in a different time, but the principal always remains, right? When I think about doing things in the museum in a different way, that really complex idea of empathy and respect and conflicting perspectives, you can sort of bring it down to a more micro level and think about what does that look like between two people.
Then what does that look like between a curator and the community that he or she is working with. What does that look like between the institution and the first nation or its partners? There are a lot of really like, I really like to think about the nuts and bolts of this in a really grounded way. There are a number of things that we’ve tried and that we are continuing to try.
It’s not a static idea or concept that really tried to engage this notion of good relationships, open communication and true friendship and respect. How do we do things in a better way keeping those ideas in mind? Really I think that’s too how you can connect things that may seem to non-indigenous people to be really abstract ideas, ideas like self-determination, ideas like reconciliation into something that’s meaningful and that they can actually feel empowered to engage in in their everyday lives.
That’s ultimately what we want visitors to do. We want them to walk away from our museum with a greater understanding, but also with better tools with which to encounter the world, whether that is an openness of spirit or a new way to speak to somebody that they would normally engage with or a new way to think about an idea. That’s what truth and reconciliation is about at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I think too, at many other institutions in this country who are dealing with the same ideas.
SA: I think that way of thinking about it is really beautiful. But you mentioned that you have this interest in the nuts and bolts of how these things manifest. Can you talk about some of the specific strategies that you championed at the museum and some of the revisions in process and in content that you actually brought about and how the museum is now dealing with indigenous content?
KD: Yeah, it starts with for sure thinking about what place in museums help traditionally occupied in indigenous communities and they haven’t necessarily been friends of both communities. For me, it really meant like taking a step back. I’m a historian by training and so I really like to look back on things to see sort of where they started and how they got to be the way that they are.
I also question things that are just like when people say it’s just the way it is. I always say, “Oh really?” But anyway, so one of the things, one of the most basic things that museums do do is that they collect and exhibit. If you look at those two ideas, let’s start with idea of collection. In many first nations it’s not, I can’t just take something from you. We can share ownership for it.
We might show authority for it, you might gift it to me and if you gift it to me then I can do with it what I want, but it would always be within the context of our relationship, right? Same with exhibiting, you might give to me a story or you might give to me something, but I would never show it in a way that’s disrespectful. Fundamentally, one of the things that we revise, one of the very concrete things that we initially revised was our oral history agreement.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has an oral history program and we try to interview different people to get their perspectives and their stories and some might be sort of everyday people that you’d run into at any time. Some might be people who would be considered really prominent or activists or sort of change makers. But either way, we’re recording oral histories. We often talk about collecting oral histories.
Our collection is our oral histories, and I worked with somebody on a recent exhibit who’s really uncomfortable with the idea that we would record her story and then we would get to decide what happens to it, right? That we would essentially own it. Now, the challenge is Canadian copyright law says exactly that. It says, “The person that records the story owns the story, right?”
It’s a challenge because we’re actually working also in a really colonized legislative context, but one of the things that we were able to do with that particular individual was to modify our oral history agreement to make it more relationship based. Instead of saying we’re recording your story and we now own it, we’ll do such and such and such with, as we see fit.
We both soften the language of that agreement, but we were also able to insert sort of a moral rights clause into that that said, “If you disagree with something that we’re doing, this is forever your story. We’re not taking it from you. This remains your story. You’re allowing us to use it. You’re allowing us to record it right now for this specific purpose that you have agreed to, but you continue to have authority over the story and we’re not taking it from you.”
Because that was like a sort of a really, it seems like a really simple thing, but it was something that took months and months to reach because of grappling with like essentially Canadian copyright law, which is really complicated. One of the other things that we did that was really sort of concrete is like museums often borrow from archives, or other collections who may not necessarily know the provenance of an item, or where it comes from, or it may not have a very good history in that institution.
It may have been taken from the community at one point where the community may not even be aware of that the museum or the institution has that item. One of the things, and I mean it’s neat to work in a museum that deals with such contemporary subject matter because in some ways this is a lot easier for me than it would be for someone who is just working on historical stuff.
Is that I was able to source the exhibit’s artifacts entirely from the lenders who also recorded oral histories with us. In that way the oral history and the trust that they’ve placed in me and in us in lending us these artifacts were all symbolic of this relationship that we are in. All of the decisions made with respect to the display and how we were going to use those objects sort of remained with those people. I know a lot of museums have really great ways of looking at and working with different communities.
This is definitely not taking away from that, but it’s just a different way to go for and saying, “Based on our relationship, this relationship that we’ve developed over many, many months.” The individual would say, “I would like to lend you this. I would like to show this with my story and I’m giving you from my personal belongings.”
Some of these things were so significant to the people that they could never be replaced. You could never replace them and they said, “I’m placing my trust in you and I’m giving you this and I’m trusting that you’re going to care for it.” Caring for it sometimes in false ceremony, so I’m trusting that you’re going to if it needs a ceremony, you’re going to conduct a ceremony.
If this object needs to be smudged you’re going to get a feather and you’re going to smudge it. You’re going to do those things. For instance, one of the contributors to our most recent exhibit, or one of our most recent exhibit, I guess not the most recent now. It’s called Rites of Passage and it’s an exhibit that deals with human rights history in Canada, but of course, like really problematic because it only deals with 150 years of Canada as human rights history, which was intended.
It was an exhibit that came out during Canada sesquicentennial or Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation. One of the stories we worked on was a gentleman whose community had been forcefully relocated in the Arctic five separate times and in the 1980s. This happened in the 1950s and ‘60s and in the 1980s he was able to organize a trip for the elders back to his home community.
In the course of that trip, he found some old toys. He found a toy kayak on his family, his old camping site and he brought that back with him. But this is an item that cannot be replaced. It was an item that sat there for 30 something years while the community was relocated, but he found 35 years later or 30 years later, right? He very generously brought it in his backpack to Winnipeg to show me.
He was very excited and showed me this thing and said he would lend it to me and he also lent to the museum some carvings that is now deceased parents had made to trade for food rations. He had received those carvings back from one of the individuals with whom they had traded rations. That person in the spirit of reconciliation had in the 1990s written to him and said, “I took these from your parents, in exchange for rations and I want to give them back to you.”
These are things that you couldn’t have replaced and because they came from him, they were so much more meaningful than borrowing them from another institution, right? All of the things that we borrowed for that exhibit for that exhibition were borrowed from the contributors themselves and in that way they really felt like they were in a relationship with me.
They were in a relationship with the museum and I actually had a person walk into often to the exhibition after it opened and it’s a person who had never been in the museum because they had some really serious problems. The young indigenous activist because she had some really serious problems with the way in which the museum had dealt with the history of residential schools. She walked into the space and she started crying. She said, “I’ve never walked into this place and felt respected and today I feel respected.”
SA: Like one of the things that you’re talking about is a process of either building trust where trust has never been or rebuilding trust where trust has been damaged or injured. I think that is what you’re talking about with relationships, but it’s acknowledging in a relationship that there is a past and there is a history that the institution has, even if it doesn’t always think about it.
In the past and that what we’re needing to do is actually think about then how you build those trust relationships again. Now in your case, it sounds like a lot of this was through one to one relationships as well. Is that, would you say that’s a fair observation?
SA: Yeah, that’s definitely a fair observation. I think that’s one of the changes that institutions may have to consider as capacity for that because it’s tiring. I was for over a year, I was on the phone every day with eight different people trying to build relationships and make sure that we were doing things as we say, in a really good way. But building this trust requires significant investment.
It requires an investment of time, it requires an investment of human resources and it for sure requires an investment of money because you have to go see people. You have to do some things face to face. Some things you can’t do. The modern world is wonderful, but you can’t always do these things over the internet or over the phone. Building these relationships one-on-one or as people needed them was really important.
The thing is like when we think about in many indigenous communities and certainly in my own Anishnawbe world view, I’ve positioned myself in relation to the world around me and in relation to other people. The relationships that I have are actually the most important. That is the thing that makes me. It is the thing that makes us as Anishnawbe and Métis people. It is the thing that ties us to our land and to our territories. Our relationships are the most foundational.
But building trust or rebuilding trust with communities who have traditionally not been very respected by institution requires like a lot of boots on the ground in boots on the ground I think and also like consistency. You have to really commit like it’s like any relationship you have to commit to your relationship and for seeing it through.
SA: You can’t just do something for one exhibition.
KD: Yeah, it’s not a one off and even now, I’m not right now, I became museum for Human Rights. I’m on leave right now but all of those people are like I’m still talking to them maybe not every day, but we touch base. If they’re in town we’ll go for coffee or if I’m traveling we’ll go visit. You never know when you maintain those relationships and when you build that trust to another level, you will never know what you’ll get out of it.
The elders that advise me now are people that I actually got to know through the process of doing museum work and they’re the people that now sort of advise me daily about what I’m doing right or what I’m doing wrong or what I need to do better in my relationships and in my work. That’s sort of been a really important outcome for me personally as well.
SA: Yeah, one of the things I think is really interesting is you’ve written about approaching reconciliation through a framework of hope rather than a framework of guilt. I think hope is a really powerful way of framing these conversations, but it’s interesting even hearing that sort of juxtaposition of guilt and hope has these two ideas with which we often come to this conversation. Can you talk a little bit about why hope, why guilt, why these are such formative ideas in this discussion space?
KD: Yeah, absolutely. I think that like a lot of this thinking comes both from the museum as well as from my experience teaching. A lot of perceptions that I think that particularly non-indigenous Canadians bring to these conversations, because of the focus that we’ve had on truth and reconciliation since the publication of the TRC’s final report in the last, well, I guess a few years now, time has flown.
Many people, many settlers, many non-indigenous Canadians come to the conversation thinking about guilt as a feeling that they should feel when they hear about this thing or these events. They come to the conversation and they say, “Oh, you know, I just don’t want to feel guilty anymore.” They avoid the conversations because they have an expectation that this is the indigenous expectation of them.
They don’t want to come into a conversation that’s based on them feeling guilty. Fundamentally, I don’t think that most indigenous people are thinking, “Geez, I really hope that this person feels terrible.” I think that what many of us are thinking are, “I hope that this person understands the context and some of our truths about our experiences in this country and with colonization.” That’s important for them to understand who we have become as people and who we are as nations.
I’m trying to regain our strength and our power and our place. In many cases that’s well underway. But anyway, so when people come to the conversation thinking about how they don’t want to feel guilty anymore, it really narrows the scope of engagement and action and closes off a part of people. I see this in visitors too, it closes off a part of them and instead of forming relationships or instead of making connections maybe between some of their experiences or engagements with different communities.
The experiences of indigenous peoples, what they’re really thinking is, “These feelings are yucky and I don’t want to feel them.” They’ll quickly walk away. I think the power in thinking about truth and reconciliation through the spectrum of hope is that it really does reframe the conversation towards the future. It says, what can we do today to continue to build hope and continue to build momentum in truth and reconciliation for the future.
Unfortunately, as happens a lot with a lot of these ideas, reconciliation has been applied in many cases in a really limited way and it hasn’t been applied in thinking about how to reframe relationships. When it’s applied in such a limited way, it gains a bad rap. I don’t know how else to say that, it gains a bad reputation in first nations communities, native communities, Inuit communities because it seems void. It seems meaningless.
Approaching with hope instead of guilt, hope doesn’t mean that you’re looking at everything through sort of rose-colored glasses. You can approach something with hope based on an understanding and recognition of the past, but also based on an orientation towards the future. I think the process of building relationships is predicated on this idea that you’re going to be hopeful that it’s going to turn out well, right?
When museums approach the conversations about truth and reconciliation from a place of hope, from a place of possibility, it really widens the spectrum for action both for individuals and for institutions.
SA: Unfortunately, the rest of Karine’s interview dropped out here. Technology is just the worst, but I’d like to thank Karine and Omar for their thoughtful perspectives. I’ll make sure to drop some links to some of both their work to their thinking and their writing in the show notes. You can follow up with both of them and learn more about what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. It was so wonderful to hear from both of them and to really think about this topic of truth and reconciliation.
There is so much here, but as we move forward, as we do think about the role of museums in dealing with systematic and systemic human rights violations and through healing and what our role is in that. This is definitely an area for future work. Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on twitter @Museopunks or check out the extended show notes at museopunks.org.
Of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher. One final plug before I sign off. On October 8, I will be giving the keynote at The Visitor Experience Conference in San Antonio, Texas. If you’re in the area or if you’re going to be at the conference, let me know. I would love to get in contact, say hi, and hear more about what you’ve been thinking about in terms of progressive museum practice in your world. Until next time, have a great month.