full bike rack

Detail of canoe

Hi everyone! I'm Owen, the Conservator for the Peterborough Museum and Archives (PMA). It's my job to take care of the objects in our collection to make sure we can share them safely and in their best light. Collections care can mean cleaning something before it goes on display or monitoring our building systems to make sure they’re working properly. It can also mean flattening a curled map so researchers can use it or building support mounts for our more fragile objects. Lately, I've spent a lot of my time working out the details of repatriating sacred and ceremonial objects from our Indigenous collection. Repatriation means we’re going to send those objects home, back to where they came from, to the descendants of those who made them. We are currently in the process of repatriating three objects with cultural significance. Two are going to the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations (GNN) and one to the Haida Nation, both in British Columbia. Collections care can also sometimes mean acknowledging that a museum isn’t the right home for an object in its collection.

We are repatriating a head ring and a feasting bowl to the GNN. These two objects were deaccessioned in 2018. The third object, heading home to the Haida Gwaii, is a model totem pole. The totem pole was never formally a part of the PMA's collection, and therefore did not need to be deaccessioned. This object's attribution as being of cultural significance was provided by Haida artists and scholars. All three objects remain in the trust and care of the PMA until appropriate transport can be arranged, which has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My training is in cultural heritage conservation which is the chemical deterioration of materials and ways to diminish or recover that loss. When I look at an object, I see the material it is made of: wood, metal, paint, etc. I also acknowledge the condition of those materials. If paint is flaking, I flatten it and glue it down. If wood is splitting, I minimize its exposure to humidity cycles. However, when working with sacred and ceremonial objects, one must recognize that they are more than just material - they are enspirited. Repatriation, and reconciliation through repatriation, is also acknowledging that the sum of my experience and training as a settler Conservator may not address the needs of these sacred and ceremonial objects. This is why it is important that we work closely with the Indigenous communities from which these objects belong to ensure that they provide us with all of the knowledge and tools necessary to be entrusted with their care and housing during the interim. 

The images of these objects have been recreated by our Curator, Kim Reid through illustration. This is an important way for us to share with the public the likeness of the objects without photographing them. The cultural and artistic practices of feasting, ceremony, and carving were outlawed under the Indian Act of 1876. With it enacted, the government began confiscating objects like these to eliminate traditional Indigenous ways of life. Many of those stolen objects then headed east to be displayed in private homes or placed on museum shelves, that is, if they weren’t destroyed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada emphasizes in its final report that repatriation of ceremonial objects - under the United Nations Declaration - is of particular relevance to museums and archives in Canada. 

The collection of the PMA started in the 1890s, and documentation of collection methods then weren’t at the standard they are today. Until recently, we didn't know where these objects came from specifically, and we still don't know who acquired them or how. As a museum that holds Indigenous material in its collection, we have a responsibility to try to undo the injustice of the past and to take steps to remove the barriers between Indigenous people and their confiscated cultural objects. A big thank you - chi miigwetch - is owed to the many colleagues, volunteers, specialists and community representatives who have aided in this process. 

head ring illustration                  model totem illustration   feasting bowl illustration

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