The new Arctic Gallery: Reconciliation, humans and natural history

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?

Artifacts on display in the museum.

The new Arctic Gallery discusses the human presence in the North through a number of exhibits, including a selection of both prehistoric and historic artifacts. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Artifacts on display in the museum.

Items from the ill-fated 1845–1848 Franklin Expedition highlight the history of European efforts to map a route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Artifacts on display in the museum.

Palaeo-Eskimo tools and other objects represent the various pre-Inuit peoples who initially colonized the Arctic. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Exhibit panel

The diversity of modern Indigenous Arctic cultures is illustrated through maps that present the ranges of various languages and dialects traditionally spoken in northern Canada and the broader circumpolar region. Image: Scott Rufolo, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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.

Men sitting around a table with exhibits in the background

Geological Survey of Canada staff in the 1880s seated around a table in the GSC museum that once occupied a building at the corner of Sussex and George in downtown Ottawa. The red circle encloses a display case containing First Nations artifacts that went on exhibit in 1862. Image: © Natural Resources Canada, Source: Natural Resources Canada/82263

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.

The outside of American Museum of Natural History building.

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has numerous halls devoted to the natural history of humanity. With a large anthropology department, the AMNH counts among the long list of major natural history museums that conduct research in and develop exhibits about human evolution, archaeology, and ethnography. The Canadian Museum of Nature is one of the few large natural history museums without an anthropology division. © Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Outside view of the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building

View of the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, which until the end of 2017 housed the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. The museum will reopen in a new building in 2019 but will do so without its long-standing dioramas depicting pre-contact life among Michigan’s Indigenous peoples. In 2010, the museum’s administration decided to remove the 50-year-old exhibits following a controversy concerning the extent to which the dioramas contributed to visitors perceiving Indigenous cultures as being stagnant, extinct, or inferior to Western societies (for a good overview of the issues involved, read this online piece concerning the episode). The American Museum of Natural History has also had to deal with such controversies. Image: © Andrew Horne (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic Gallery includes a designated space for temporary exhibits developed in collaboration with northern organizations, the photo above showing the inaugural Inuinnauyugut: We Are Inuinnait display curated by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society. Such partnerships are essential to developing richer and more authentic material, as is the inclusion of European societies as a focus of museum exhibits, an approach succinctly argued for here regarding the American Museum of Natural History (and by a 16-year-old student no less!). Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Collections, Exhibitions, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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