“The story I want to tell you is no longer uniformly white. It takes place on the land, at sea, and within our hearts. And of course it has an ambition, one that’s simple and not idealistic. It aims to let us look at who we are and accept where we come from.” Naomi Fontaine, “The Great Story,” from This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century.
The Musée de la civilisation, a Québec national institution, opened its doors in 1988 with the mandate of developing Québec’s ethnographic collections and showcasing, both nationally and internationally, the diversity of Québec's reality. Four additional exhibition and conservation spaces have since been entrusted to it, creating the museum complex called Musées de la civilisation, in the plural.
From its inception, the Musée has developed strong ties with Québec’s eleven Aboriginal Nations. The institution’s commitment to representing Aboriginal realities is clearly expressed in its Indigenous Peoples Policy (2012). It affirms the museum’s intention to be a privileged partner to Aboriginal peoples in the protection and promotion of their identities, helping to make their realities, heritage, and cultures known, and seeking their participation in museum activities and projects that concern them.
In preparing its first permanent exhibition, Encounter with the First Nations (1998-2013), the Musée sought the active participation of Aboriginal peoples. Indeed, the French title, Nous, les Premieres Nations (literally "We, the First Nations"), suggested that the Nations were representing themselves to visitors, in a production of their own creation. In actuality, the collaboration was one of extensive consultation, with representatives of various communities responding to questions formulated by the production team. While the representatives validated such aspects as content and display strategies, the museum retained leadership in the production. The process could be considered an initial stage in what is now called the new participatory museology.
In 2010, the institution set out to revamp the exhibition. Doing so was an opportunity for the Musée de la civilisation to explore a structurally inclusive approach to better represent experiences spanning thousands of years and many diverse traditions. Accordingly, the Exhibitions Department and its partner, La Boîte Rouge vif, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting the heritage of Aboriginal cultures, opted for an inclusive process of collaboration, making an unprecedented effort to enlist the participation of Aboriginal peoples in every phase of the project. The aim was to ensure that the exhibition would reflect the perspectives of people encountered in the communities.
On November 26, 2013, after a landmark exercise in “collaborative leadership” with the Aboriginal Nations of Québec, the Musée inaugurated This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century. The title points to the socially engaged content, in which Aboriginal people present their reading of history, distinct from that generally contained in history books. It is also a statement addressed to Quebeckers of all origins, since the history of these eleven Nations is their history as well. Québec society holds within itself the memory of 500 years of contact with Aboriginal peoples—500 years of coexistence and exchange, but also of misunderstanding and conflict.
Some 90,000 Aboriginal and Inuit people live in Québec, comprising about 1% of its population. A fifth live in urban areas. In This Is Our Story, these women and men reread the past, share the present, and, above all, dream the future. The exhibition draws on a rich collection as well as contemporary works, created to support its messages. It opens with Aboriginal People Today, immersing visitors in the current reality, ways of life, and unique heritage of the various communities. Next, We of Long Ago traces the long passage of Aboriginal peoples over the North American continent and across some 12,500 years of history, emphasizing their diverse traditions. This is followed by A Time of Turmoil, which depicts the clash of civilizations: 400 years of colonization, transformation, and resilience. Decolonization: New Alliances Emerge looks at initiatives, such as land claims, political and cultural negotiations, lobbying efforts, and transfers of administrative power, aimed at re-establishing historic relationships. Lastly, What Are Our Dreams for the Future? considers the concerns and aspirations of these communities.
The exhibition path itself is not revolutionary. Distinct, however, is the unique process involved in its planning: First Nations and Inuit people were not only consulted, but active participants in developing the concept, content, and design of the exhibition, in an exhaustive process that lasted 38 months. Representatives designated by each Nation met twice in a unique special assembly, the Mamo (“together,” in the language of the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok), to define expectations, methodologies, and themes.
Simultaneously, a multidisciplinary team visited 18 communities, often hundreds of kilometres apart, compiling an exceptional body of transcribed and video-recorded documentation. They took part in the everyday life of the communities and helped establish a climate of trust and confidence. Creative workshops were conducted in each Nation and at the Musée. The documentary memory of this process comprises more than 5,000 pages of testimony, 10,000 photographs, and 250 hours of video. A box containing copies of the compiled content was presented to each Nation during the inauguration.
This approach required that all eleven Nations and the museum leave their comfort zones and accept the expression of divergent views, making the exhibition a platform for reflection and debate. Communication was a major challenge throughout, navigating between French, English, and various Aboriginal languages. In this veritable Nation to Nation exchange, no single Nation was to dominate, even with the best of intentions, or impose its rhythm, presence, or ways of “inviting” itself. Still, the process involved eleven distinct Nations, each hoping to see its own historic trajectory reflected. A reality check soon demanded that the Aboriginal partners, museologists, and members of the scientific committee lower their expectations. Exhibitions inevitably have an allochtonous, or “outsider,” perspective that can distort through generalization, unable to satisfy the simultaneous demands of identity affirmation, cultural diversity, and relationships to history and contemporary reality. Nonetheless, the “new participatory museology” remains positive and illuminating, creating a space in which stakeholders can express how they want to be represented and understand each other’s intentions.
Following this extraordinary museological experience, the Musée wishes to implement tools to foster an ongoing dialogue, in real time, between visitors and the communities, enabling the exhibition to remain dynamic and relevant.
In the medium term, the Musée de la civilisation will revamp another permanent exhibition, People of Québec... Then and Now. This raises a new question: should we continue to deal separately with these two historic paths, that of the European descendents and of the eleven Aboriginal Nations, which after all mirror each other? Could a single exhibition one day make the claim “This Is Our Story”?
Thanks to the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok, Waban-Aki (Abenakis), Anishinabeg (Algonquins), Innu (Montagnais), Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawks), Hurons-Wendat, Wolastoqiyik (Malecite), Eeyou (Crees), Mi'gmaq, Naskapis and Inuit, and, in particular, to Élisabeth Kaine of La Boîte Rouge vif, Yves Sioui-Durand, exhibition scenographer, and Naomi Fontaine, contributing writer.
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