Moving out of the museum and into the gallery

By Emma Lovell

A basket maker was once teaching a class how to weave baskets. They began by learning a song; then, after passing through the forest, they learned another song. They then went into the classroom and learned yet another song.

Finally, one student asked, “Why are we learning all these songs? When are we going to start making baskets?”

The teacher turned to her students and said, “It is important to learn the songs first because a basket is a song made visual.”

Gerald McMaster, aboriginal artist and curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, believes this tale emphasizes the importance of including the culture, songs and customs of aboriginal groups in the presentation of their artwork in museums.

An exhibit at the Carleton University Art Gallery is addressing the display of these collections in a new way. Historical objects are being presented as art in a gallery, rather than artifacts in a museum.

However, by putting these objects in a different context, new challenges arise. McMaster believes the strictly visual approach of most art galleries will need to be reworked to incorporate more aspects of aboriginal life, such as song and dance.

Although there may be challenges, this shift in representation creates a new arena to discuss these issues, says Diana Nemiroff, director of Carleton’s gallery.

“I think the art gallery has a social and cultural role to play and one of its fundamental lessons is of tolerance,” she says. “If we exemplify tolerance and keep an open mind, we can provide people with new opportunities to learn.”

The Carleton exhibit is called Dè T’a Hoti Ts’eeda: “We Live Securely by the Land”. It includes 19th century artifacts gathered in Northern Canada. The collection is presented in collaboration with National Museums Scotland, which will permanently display the artifacts when the Canadian tour is completed in December.

In conjunction with the exhibit, a symposium was held on Oct. 27 to discuss the greater challenge of presenting historical aboriginal art in the contemporary museum or art gallery.

For Leanne L’Hirondelle, director of Gallery 101 on Bank Street, this type of discussion applies to contemporary works of art, as well as historical ones.

Aboriginal communities continue to speak through their art today, she says. These objects provide members of these communities with direct connections to their past, which is important to them.

By bringing these objects and issues to the forefront of discussion, aboriginal people get an opportunity to speak about their past, L’Hirondelle says.

“Aboriginal Peoples’ histories are contained, in a way, in objects. It’s important to give people back the ownership over their own history,” she says.

For many, like Louise Profeit-LeBlanc, it is important to maintain the connection between those who created the artifacts and those who continue to create aboriginal art.

“We are not a dead people,” says Profeit-LeBlanc, a member of the Nacho N’yak Dun First Nations community in the Yukon. “These types of exhibits are inspired by communities that continue to live today.”

Profeit-LeBlanc, who works for the Canada Council for the Arts, says the influence of aboriginal people in the representation of their own art is critical. She has worked closely with curators on a number of aboriginal art exhibits.

“We are in the era of aboriginal people taking hold of things themselves,” she says. “We are taking our rightful role in interpreting these objects.”

Nemiroff says the lessons of the Carleton exhibit apply to all cultures, emphasizing the universal qualities of humankind, rather than each culture’s individuality.

“We wouldn’t really care about historical objects themselves,” she says, “if they weren’t portraits of us.”