Exploring the museological narrative

Agnes’ Conversations in Indigenous Art features speakers Natalie Alvarez and Kelsey Wrightson

It’s hard for people to take interest in, let alone come to terms with their past mistakes. 

On Monday night, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre hosted a forum entitled “Contrasting Narratives: Indigenous Histories in the Museum”, the first event of this year in the Agnes’ Conversations in Indigenous Art series that confronts colonial narratives and discourses.

People of all ages gathered to learn about and discuss the objectivity of museums in educating the public on the historical expropriation of Indigenous peoples. 

The forum was spearheaded by two speakers who discussed the sensitivity of Indigenous narratives and museums’ role in telling these stories. The first speaker, Natalie Alvarez chronicled her own immersive experience with the First Nation reserve, Shoal Lake 40 through dark tourism. 

Alvarez visited the Canadian Museum of Human Rights’ ‘living museum’ at Shoal Lake 40 to witness firsthand the injustices that occurred there. In describing the interactive tour she was taken on, Alvarez engaged the audience in a retelling of how the Indigenous people of Shoal Lake 40 were displaced from their homes for the construction of an aqueduct. 

Because of the aqueduct, the residents of Shoal Lake 40 haven’t had access to clean water for close to two decades. The area has since been sequestered due to a diversion canal, situating the Shoal Lake 40 on a man-made island. 

Alvarez’s speech drew on a parallel between how the community was isolated physically, and how Indigenous communities in general are trivialized socially. 

An interesting issue Alvarez addressed was that of the pseudo-interest and naïve empathy expressed by settlers. Alvarez explained that, despite her own intellectual interest in the topic, the purpose of these museums isn’t to advance Canadian scholarship or to absolve past sins, but to open up a discourse about our shared colonial history, Canadian civility and human rights in general.

“Museums can be quite effective in masking the meta-narrative by means of individualized selections of the tour and arbitrary highlighting of different stations,” Alvarez said, during a follow-up period later in the evening.

The next speaker, Kelsey Wrightson weighed the costs of museological learning, outlining the potential limits to the neutrality of the historical narrative within museums. 

She discussed the future-oriented focus of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which she says depicts the Canadian heroism of the present rather than highlighting the Canadian hypocrisy of the past, leaving the country on what she calls an “ethical high note”. 

She also expressed the semantic importance of acknowledging these human rights violations as genocide. 

“Audiences like feeling smart and hearing stories they already know, they don’t always want to learn something new. Museums aren’t intended to make people feel smart, but to put an onus of responsibility on the spectator,” Wrightson said.

An overarching issue addressed by the forum was how settlers benefit, through intellectual or financial pursuits, off of the subjugation and exploitation of Indigenous communities. Indigenous and human rights museums take on the difficult task of educating sometimes-ignorant settlers about an often tragic history. 

The evening provided me, as an outsider, a much better understanding of the social and political issues at hand, as well as a greater interest in the inherent biases of museums. 



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