Friday, November 27, 2015

Reflections: Moving Forward

We rarely take time to deeply reflect on our own museum experiences.  In this post, 2015 mentee Susan Fohr of the Textile Museum of Canada shares the impact of an exhibition in Western Canada. Her reflections are a great reminder of both the importance of regularly immersing ourselves as visitors and equally, the challenge of evaluating the meaningful experiences of our visitors.  After all, if Susan had not written this post, how would the Art Gallery she visited know of the deep impact the show made?

The longer I work as a museum professional, the less time I seem to dedicate to being a museum visitor.

As a museum educator engrossed in thinking about interpretation and pedagogy, I find that too often I spend my time at other institutions employing my critical eye, trying to understand the motivation for certain interpretive choices rather than enjoying an exhibition in its own right. As museum professionals, visiting other museums and questioning other institution's practices is an important part of our professional development; however, it can be refreshing to visit an exhibition and enjoy it in its own right and be open to the unexpected conversations to which it invites you to participate. These can often be the experiences that resonate with us the longest, as happened to me this past spring.

In April, I traveled to Regina to participate in the Canadian Art Gallery Educators annual symposium. The symposium was hosted by the Mackenzie Art Gallery to take advantage of opportunities to discuss Indigenous representation and engagement, a conversation that the gallery was cultivating through its current project Moving Forward, Never Forgetting.

"Moving Forward, Never Forgetting creates a space for intercultural dialogue and storytelling. The exhibition and related events encourage sharing, empathy, and deeper understanding of what it means for Indigenous and non-Indigenous to co-reside in these territories.... Presenting the personal expression of Indigenous artists alongside collaborations with non-Indigenous friends who share this territory, the exhibition addresses our complex histories in a spirit of creative conciliation. In addition, Moving Forward, Never Forgetting offers a gathering place where people of different backgrounds can meet to gain a better understanding of each other through art-making and conversation."

Having already heard much about the exhibition and its related programming from a colleague at the Mackenzie Art Gallery, I had already had a sense that this exhibition could be challenging and transformative.  I felt it was important to experience the exhibition on my own before we began our conversations as part of the symposium, ensuring a personal rather than an intellectual response to the works of art. The first day of the symposium concluded with an invitation to attend a performance of music and spoken word by Métis artists, but first I decided to spend some time in the exhibition, which was located on the same floor of the museum as the performance. Although rounds of applause could be heard from the adjacent gallery and there was additional traffic in the exhibition due to the special event, I did feel that I had the time and space to contemplate each work of art while also feeling like I was participating in a larger project of building dialogue and community.

I began my exploration of the exhibition in a large open gallery with a high ceiling; many of the artworks shared this same open space, whether they were hanging from the ceiling, arranged on the floor or more traditionally displayed on the wall. Smaller rooms were carved out of this larger space to house specific artworks. Three adjacent more narrow galleries housed additionally works of art. One of these galleries offered space for visitors to process and reflect what they had already experienced in the exhibition; tea and cookies were available, as well as books and catalogues for further research. Story keepers, a new position created by the art gallery, were present to assist visitors in learning about the stories behind the art works, and to collect stories from visitors. This was also a programming space during many of the participatory programs that were an important part of the project. The artworks that resonated with me the most reflect the range of approaches and voices that were included in the project. Illuminatis/Inabe (2013) by JaimieIsaac consisted of a series of light boxes of archival photographs from a residential school attended by the artist's relatives. One image featured a group of Catholic nuns accompanied by First Nations children holding knitting needles. This work forced me to acknowledge the role in which positive forces within my own life – my faith tradition and a hobby I practice to unwind – have been used as a tool of assimilation and destruction.

The dimly lit room that featured Adrian Stimson’s Sick and Tired (2004) was a space that was difficult to remain in when one learned that the metal bed frame and windows that made up the installation came from a residential school; this piece  brought to mind stories of residential school abuse from the news (in particular through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and contemporary Canadian literature. These works were an important acknowledgement of the difficult history of the country of which I am proud to be a citizen, a history very different from my own experience of what it means to live in this place.Other works moved me in other ways. Leah Decter and Jaimie Isaac's official denial (trade value in progress, 2010) invites visitors to comment on two statements made by former prime minister Stephen Harper. In June of 2008, he issued an official “Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools;” the following year, he stated in a speech at the G20  that Canada has "no history of Colonialism.” These comments are then stitched onto Hudson's Bay blankets at a series of Sewing Actions, a means of empowerment which resonated with my own personal interests in textiles.  

In Skeena Reece’s video Touch Me (2013), an Aboriginal woman (the artist), bathes a non-Aboriginal woman (another artist whose work is featured in the exhibition). The intimacy and emotion displayed by the two women was deeply moving, and exemplified that message of conciliation that was a key message of the exhibition. The use of the word conciliation rather than reconciliation is an important distinction.  As co-curator David Garneau writes elsewhere, conciliation is motivated by a desire to bring into harmony while acknowledging  and living with irreconcilable histories.

The opportunity to tour the exhibition with David Garneau and co-curator Michelle LaVallee, the conversations about the exhibition with colleagues at the conference and further reading I have done since the conference on Indigenous history and experience in Canada have contributed to the deeper impact that this exhibition has had on me. However, I do think the personal connections I made to art in the exhibition provided the key motivation for exploring the ideas presented by the exhibition in greater depth. I am still unpacking the implications of this experience on my identity as both a Canadian citizen and a museum educator, but I am excited to see how my investigations unfold over time.

Top photo credit:  Don Hall

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