Museum collections are legacies of imperial and colonial histories. The dynamics of those histories mean that much Indigenous material heritage from what is currently called Canada is not held in Canadian museums. Much of this material resides in overseas museums, especially in Britain. This geographic distance complicates the ability of Indigenous peoples to access ancestral items. As many Indigenous mentors have instructed myself and my museum colleagues, ancestral items are not objects; they are imbued with animate spirits or potential. Herman Yellow Old Woman (Siksika) expressed this by saying, “When we come here [to the museum] we pray, we talk to these things you call artifacts. To us they’re not artifacts. They’re live; it’s a living thing” (p. 104). Such items are witnesses to and narratives of Indigenous histories as experienced by community members. Contact with them facilitates healing by strengthening the transfer of knowledge across generations and by sparking the narration of community and family histories. Work with historic collections constitutes a special form of historical research with deep meanings in the present.
As curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) at Oxford since 1998, I have explored ways to make collections accessible to Indigenous communities of origin. This has been part of a broader shift in UK curation, one dependent on external research grants: it costs about $5,000 to move one item from the UK to Canada due to specialist crating, insurance, air freight and courier costs. Museums struggle to meet operational expenses—which don’t include loans, overseas research visits or repatriation costs—making external funding a necessity for access projects.
Despite these challenges, UK museums have begun to embrace such work. Online access to photographs and information, 3D digitization, and partnering in online portals to collections have all been part of this work. So has working with Indigenous delegations to UK museums and enhanced loans which include handling opportunities for community members. Such work has begun to improve access and, perhaps more importantly, to develop relationships between museums and Indigenous communities.