The new Canada Goose Arctic Gallery marks an important moment at the museum. It’s the museum’s only gallery at present that includes substantial anthropological material and themes. In other words, it’s the only one that significantly includes the human story in natural history.
In addition to highlighting many aspects of the northern polar region, including geography, geology, flora, fauna, and ecosystems, the gallery also profiles human artifacts and exhibits centered on Arctic languages and cultures.
As a paleontologist and archaeologist, I’m very pleased to see this. After all, humans are part of nature, and we often can’t fully tell a natural history story without including our role.
So, why are humans largely absent from the majority of the museum’s other exhibits?
In part, the answer lies in the museum’s history. Our precursor, the museum of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), which in 1927 became the National Museum of Canada, collected it all: everything from minerals to fossils and archaeological artifacts.
But in 1956, the National Museum of Canada was split literally down the middle into what are now the Museum of Nature and the Museum of History. They remained in the same building, but the conceptual separation of humans from natural history had begun, with the Museum of History solely responsible for anthropology.
But this institutional separation of humans from natural history is only part of the story.
Another key part is that it coincided with a growing awareness of how natural history museums perpetuated colonialist and racist ideologies, both in exhibits of non-Western cultures, and behind the scenes.
Examples involving Arctic cultures abound. They include the story of Minik, a native Greenlander who was brought to New York in 1897 as a child by the American explorer Robert Peary. Delivered along with five other Inuit, including his father, to the American Museum of Natural History for study, Minik grew-up to face many challenges. For example, when Minik’s father died from tuberculosis, his body was placed in the museum’s collection and Minik fought to recover his father’s remains for a proper burial.
Canada did not escape such episodes. Several Labrador Inuit died in Europe in 1881 after touring the continent in what have been referred to as “human zoos”.
Thus, without archaeological staff or mandate, and with sensitive political issues in the public consciousness, the museum had little incentive to more fully integrate humans and nature in exhibitions.
However, we are biological organisms and cannot be separated from critical thinking about natural history, regardless of the institutional, political and cultural challenges of including us.
We represent an important and influential component of the biodiversity of our planet.
The Arctic region in particular clearly demonstrates that our very existence as a species has had a profound effect on the world around us, and vice versa.
In pushing further and further northward, our species, evolving initially in the hot climate of Africa, experienced both biological and cultural developments that enabled people to conquer the cold, unforgiving Arctic environment.
Our advancing technologies and patterns of resource usage are now altering the very polar climates that drove our adaptations to life in the cold. For example, the new gallery highlights the impact of human-influenced climate change in the Arctic.
The gallery also contains a map that details lands and waters now protected by Arctic nations, a positive sign of the way humans are influencing the region.
Thus, the role of people in shaping the natural history of the northern polar region had to be included in the Arctic Gallery in order to portray an accurate and complete picture of the region’s natural history.
For me, the new Arctic Gallery is an example of how the integration of anthropology exhibits in natural history museums can act as both a vehicle for reconciliation and a more holistic understanding of the Earth’s natural history.
The recommendations for museums and archives in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action implores museums to comply with the tenets of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
These tenets include recognition of the fact that Indigenous peoples have the right to control their cultural heritage.
Thus, in the development of the Arctic Gallery, the museum partnered with Indigenous groups, and individuals living and operating in Canada’s north, in order to blend their voices and perspectives into the gallery.
The result of this partnership is an impressive gallery that incorporates scientific data, cultural insights, and the personal perspectives of a diverse group of individuals, including researchers, politicians, artisans, and hunters–all of whom speak through “people capsules”.
This myriad of voices presents the diverse splendor of the natural history of the Arctic–humans included.