Author Note: Portions of this blog post were originally published on WDM.ca. They are reproduced with permission from the authors and the Western Development Museum (WDM). The WDM is the provincially mandated human history museum of Saskatchewan.
Language is important. The words we choose to use in our historical interpretation must be inclusive, accurate, respectful, current, and meaningful. Language also changes with time. What were acceptable narratives, framing, interpretations, and usages in the past are now often no longer acceptable. As new research is released, and public engagement and expectations evolve museums need to adapt their approaches to interpreting history. The findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that were released in 2015 emphasized the power that words and language have over our perceptions and understandings of the world around us, and how words influence how we interact with and relate to other people.
Museums are perceived by many as places of historical authority, but museums aren’t neutral. Everyone involved in the development of exhibits, from funders to researchers to curators to exhibit designers, has their own biases and perspectives that seep into what they produce, no matter how neutral they try to be. Positionality is unavoidable but it needs to be acknowledged, and it can be mitigated through collaboration with diverse groups, recognizing and affirming a wide array of perspectives.
The recognition of the importance of language, as well as the importance of acknowledging how history-making changes over time, has led the WDM to complete a systematic evaluation of all the language used in its public spaces.
The WDM has four museum locations across Saskatchewan (in Moose Jaw, North Battleford, Saskatoon, and Yorkton) and a corporate office in Saskatoon. With over 200,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space, the WDM is physically one of the largest museums in Canada. This space comes not just with artifacts but with thousands of signs, artifact labels, interpretive panels, and historical interpretations. Some of these were written as recently as this year while others date back to the early 1950s. The wide date range in the production of the museum’s text, means there is inconsistency in curatorial choices and the language and tone used.
This evaluation process began in response to both the Inclusivity Report: Reconciliation and Diversity at the WDM, released in January 2019, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Calls to Action. Specifically, this work aligns with TRC Calls to Action #43:
We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.
We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.
Additionally, article 15 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information. 2. States shall take effective measures, in consultation and cooperation with the indigenous peoples concerned, to combat prejudice, eliminate discrimination, and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.
In response to the WDM’s Inclusivity Report, this process acts on Recommendation 5: “Develop and implement a plan for exhibit renewal at all WDM locations to increase overall diversity and inclusivity in the stories being told.” The Inclusivity Report was written by WDM Curator Dr. Elizabeth Scott and was released in 2019 with the purpose of documenting areas in which the WDM could improve and recommending ways to make these improvements.
Appropriate language in museum texts and narratives is an important part of upholding Indigenous rights, combating prejudice, eliminating discrimination and promoting empathy. Evaluating use of language is one step the WDM is taking towards Reconciliation, redressing the imbalances that have been produced in its galleries over many decades. We have found over the course of our evaluations that some of the text in the exhibits is outdated, inaccurate, or prioritizes a progressive settler-colonial version of history.
This project will have two phases. The first, currently underway, is language remediation. This process involves examining the language and content of the current exhibits, ensuring it is appropriate and making changes where necessary. The second phase – renewal — will involve examining which stories are underrepresented or absent from our exhibits and determining how to include those stories in partnership with communities. The important part of the renewal process will be to ensure that underrepresented stories are woven throughout the museum galleries and result in something beyond tokenism.
It is important to note that this process can never truly be complete. Language and terminology are fluid and constantly evolving. Museums must be prepared to regularly update their narratives, texts, messages and content to reflect this. The WDM’s goal is to ensure all its language is appropriate today, recognizing that, at any time, the language may change and the process will repeat.
As part of the language remediation process we developed a rubric to evaluate signs. The content of signs is evaluated based on criteria such as:
- Urgency of the change needed;
- inclusive vs exclusive perspectives;
- if individuals are named and if Indigenous people are portrayed as individuals;
- if the diversity of Indigenous nations is acknowledged;
- if the language is appropriate to and inclusive of people with disabilities and
- an overall evaluation of the tone of the sign.
Each of these categories can earn a score from zero to five. Zero means the criterion is not applicable. A score of one is excellent and five is poor. The higher score a sign receives, the more problematic it is and the more urgent are its changes. We have found that the most problematic signs are not the ones that use outdated terminology, but rather the signs that overlook or erase important historical perspectives. For example, a sign in the WDM Saskatoon on women’s suffrage in Saskatchewan states that “The government of Premier Walter Scott enfranchised women in Saskatchewan on March 14, 1916.” Only certain women obtained the right to vote at this time though. Indigenous people, people of Asian descent, incarcerated people and women with disabilities were all excluded from the right to vote. This sign erases the struggles of marginalized women and universalizes the experience of non-disabled white women.
This sign also includes a quote from the Dominion Elections Act, which states “No woman, idiot, lunatic or criminal shall vote,” but provides no context for this statement, leaving it to stand on its own. The implication of this, in the context of the sign, is that women deserved the vote and were unjustly deprived from voting, but that “idiot[s], lunatic[s], and criminal[s]” were rightly denied the right to vote and that the inclusion of women in this group was preposterous. Given the eugenicist beliefs of some famous Canadian suffragists, including Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, this quote paints a rather disturbing picture of who does and does not deserve the right to vote.
This specific sign will likely require rewriting. It was written twenty or more years ago, and our understandings of history and marginalized perspectives have changed since then. This case is not just an example of tastes changing over time, but an example of how historical scholarship and accepted historical narratives evolve with the release of new research, such as Erika Dyck’s “Facing Eugenics” and Lara Campbell’s “A Great Revolutionary Wave.” Sarah Carter’s work on women’s participation in colonialism, “Imperial Plots,” also challenges popular understandings of white womanhood on the Canadian prairies.
It is important for us to update signage, or at the very least be aware of the problematic issues and missed nuance in our signs. These language evaluations give us the opportunity to make active decisions about museum content. Not changing signs isn’t the default, passive action, but rather a conscious decision to leave them as they are.
Every single sign and label, indoors and outdoors, in each of the four WDM locations has been photographed, inventoried, and evaluated using the rubric. It is a long process, but it is important to be thorough and have a holistic understanding of the Museum’s content. The evaluations and scores are tracked on a database. We successfully completed these evaluations at the end of 2019.
With the sign evaluations complete, we are beginning to rewrite the most urgent signs and work our way through everything that requires editing. This will take several years to complete. Shifting overarching narratives in the Museum and making space for a greater diversity of perspectives, will take even more time. Community consultations and relationship-building will ensure the information and interpretations are both accurate and respectful. We look forward to building more partnerships and sharing authority with communities in pursuit of this goal.
Kaiti Hannah is a Curatorial Assistant at the WDM Corporate Office in Saskatoon. She holds an MA in Public History from Western University. The author wishes to thank WDM Curator Dr. Elizabeth Scott for her assistance with this article.