To Breathe Life Into This Space: Objects with Lives and Agency
This article contains mention of Canadian residential schools.
If you’re a Museum Studies student, it’s likely you’ve talked a lot about the ways that museums can better serve Indigenous communities, given that so many examples of traditional Indigenous art and cultural materials reside in Canadian institutions. Repatriation of these items – while one of this author’s favourite topics to expound on at length – will wait for another article. With this piece, I’d like to bring your attention to a novel agreement that’s been struck between an Indigenous artist and a certain (rather infamous, but that’s another story we all know) Canadian museum. The Witness Blanket is a large-scale art installation made from hundreds of items reclaimed from churches, government buildings, and residential schools. The artist, master carver Carey Newman, is Kwakwak’awakw from the Kukwekum, Giiksam, and WaWalaby’ie clans of northern Vancouver Island, and Coast Salish from Cheam of the Sto:lo Nation along the upper Fraser Valley. The Blanket he and his team created stands as a national monument to the atrocities committed in residential schools, and symbolizes the work of ongoing reconciliation. It’s an incredibly moving piece: in addition to pieces from buildings which ran and operated residential schools, it contains personal items from survivors and weaves it all into a giant tapestry of tragedy, resilience, and hope.
The Witness Blanket. Source: The Canadian Museum for Human Rights The Blanket itself is marvel enough, but what deserves special attention – especially to us Museum Studies students – is the agreement behind its exhibition at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. I see you twitching at the mention of that museum’s name, but I promise we won’t get into that whole sorry debacle here. The story is thus: after the Witness Blanket completed its cross-Canada tour, its creators knew that it needed a permanent home to rest and undergo conservation. However, they did not want to give the Blanket to the CMHR in a way that would imply the piece had one owner. So too, in order to reflect the spirit of truth and reconciliation in which the Blanket was created, they wanted to forge an alliance with the CMHR that did not reflect the traditional power imbalance between museums and Indigenous communities. The agreement that resulted was unprecedented among museums. In a traditional gathering place on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, stakeholders and museum workers were invited to witness an oral ceremony that made Canadian museum history. For the first time ever, the Crown had ratified a binding legal document through Indigenous ways of knowing. The agreement struck between the CMHR and creators of the Witness Blanket would be put into effect using both written documents and oral agreements, both of which were given equal weight. Carey Newman described this groundbreaking contract as one that lives in two worlds, and joins Western and Indigenous traditions. But to my mind, that isn’t the only incredible part. The contract dictates that the Witness Blanket itself holds its own legal rights – not its creators or the museum where it will reside. This artifact, a physical testimonial to the horrors of residential schools and hope for a better future, has the right to its own story as an independent, living being. This might sound strange to the majority of us who grew up thinking that museums owned artifacts, which were inanimate objects that were there to teach us about history. I know that’s how I grew up seeing objects in museums. But I think this unprecedented agreement is the first step to seeing artifacts in a different way, one that affords objects more agency. What does this mean for the future of museums? When I heard about the agreement to treat the Witness Blanket as an object with its own life, I thought of this Robert Smithson quote: “Museums…are graveyards above the ground – congealed memories of the past that act as a pretext for reality.” And while I don’t entirely believe that this is true, I can’t deny that sometimes entering a museum does feel like entering a graveyard - not just because of the artifacts taken out of their contexts and placed behind glass cases, but because of the atmosphere of silence and the idea that we should be treating the space with quiet reverence. Quiet reverence doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the idea that objects are living things with their own spirits – which many Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island have always known – opens up a whole new pathway of what museums can be. In the context of this agreement, the Witness Blanket isn’t simply an art piece that commemorates those who never came home from residential schools. It’s a living thing with its own spirit and agency; it isn’t owned by a museum but stands as its own being. What would happen if we treated all museum objects this way? If we treated each artifact as something distinct, with its own life, deeply connected to the lives of those who made and used it? We would be making museums safer spaces for Indigenous communities – and everyone else! We would be injecting emotional and spiritual care into the sometimes-sterile atmosphere of collections care. And we would be taking an important step down the road to museum reconciliation. If we have the courage to unlearn, a whole new era of interacting with objects is at our fingertips. With the precedent of the Witness Blanket set before us, now is the time to consider just how alive museums can really be.