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Vancouver Museum Closes Part of Its First Peoples Gallery in Effort to Decolonize

The Royal British Columbia Museum in Vancouver announced last week that it would close sections of its First Peoples galleries, beginning this month. In January, the entire wing, located on the museum’s third floor, will close. The closure comes in response to calls by Indigenous activists to change how the museum discusses the colonization of British Columbia, privileging the stories of settlers over the Indigenous peoples who had long lived on the land.

“Decolonization of the museum’s galleries is important and long overdue,” said Daniel Muzyka, the museum’s acting CEO, in a statement. Closing the gallery, he added, is “necessary to begin the long-term work of creating new narratives that include under-represented voices and reflect the lived experiences and contemporary stories of the people in BC.”

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14th century triptych

In a statement, Melanie Mark, B.C.’s Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport and one of the province’s few elected First Nations politicians, said, “For too long, museums have been colonial institutions that exclude others from telling their own stories. We have an opportunity to turn the museum inside out, and it starts here, now, on the museum’s third floor.”

The Royal BC Museum has previously conducted decolonization efforts. In 2016, the museum returned 17 cultural objects to the Huu-ay-aht First Nations in a repatriation ceremony. The Museum still holds a large collection of Indigenous artifacts. The Royal BC Museum did not give specifics on how else it will address its colonial legacies and what the future of the First Peoples galleries will be.

Institutions elsewhere in North America have also begun to reframe how their exhibitions and displays that discuss the continent’s first inhabitants. In 2019, for example, the American Museum of Natural History in New York etched corrections on the glass displays of dioramas that described Indigenous people using demeaning and racist stereotypes. At the time, Lauri Halderman, the museum’s vice president for exhibition, told the New York Times, “We could have just covered it over. What was actually more interesting was not to make it go away but to acknowledge that it was problematic.”

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