In 2018, the Kelowna Museums Society (KMS) announced their decision to deaccession various ethnographic objects from Oceania via the BC Museums Association listserv. The KMS consists of three museums that together aim to reflect the culture and community of the Okanagan region. Thus, the deaccessioned objects were not relevant to their mandate of focusing on objects of local significance. With an eye to creating a new ‘Museum Studies’ course, and to provide students with opportunities for hands-on learning, I proposed that the Anthropology laboratory at Langara College, where I work as an instructor, give a new home to some of these objects. My enthusiasm for creating an ethnographic teaching collection was matched by the college, and I was given permission to co-ordinate the transfer.
Langara College is a post-secondary institution located in Vancouver, on the unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation. Langara provides a foundation to further education and career development, with many students choosing to study at the college prior to transferring to other higher-education institutions. The variety of academic courses at the college include those offered by faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, including several hands-on focused classes that make use of equipment and resources in the Anthropology laboratory.
The number of objects being deaccessioned from the KMS far exceeded the resources of our Anthropology laboratory and I only requested a portion of the available objects for transfer. I envisioned the teaching collection being comprised of objects that would make for interesting tactile experiences, yet small enough that they could be easily stored in our laboratory. As a result, the objects I requested include several body decorations and other items of wearable material culture such as pendants, armbands, a vest, and a koteka (a sheath worn to cover male genitalia). The objects also include small-scale items such as flutes, basketry, a bag, and a ceramic bowl.
As with many older museum collections, the provenance of the Oceanic objects from the KMS is not well known. Generally, only the name of the source had been recorded in the KMS files and in many instances there were no provenance documents. However, one of the curators at the KMS explained that some of the objects may have been acquired for Expo ’86, and therefore were likely new and unused when acquired. Previous research that the KMS conducted indicated that the objects are not antiquities, and do not appear to have historical significance. Several of the items that were transferred to Langara appear to have been donated to the KMS from the same individual in the 1980s.
After receiving the items in early 2019, I began to make plans to offer a Museum Studies course at Langara as a ‘Special Topics’ course (identified as course code ANTH 1195) in the Spring semester of 2020. Funds were made available from the Anthropology laboratory budget to purchase equipment to house and exhibit the objects. I returned to the BC listserv community to solicit ideas and help for the best housing material types and vendors to use, and was very happy to receive the support of numerous museum professionals who took the time to offer helpful suggestions and provide resources.
My own interest and experience in museums includes time spent working as a gallery assistant in various museums in London (England), and time spent completing doctorate research at various museums in North America. I have always found museums fascinating places, and relished the time spent working hands-on with collections of material culture. A course in Museum Studies is beneficial to students aiming to work in museology or related fields. Although the course was an experiment because it had never before been offered by the Anthropology department, 22 students enrolled to take the course.
Since January, I have been working with this group of students to expose them to the world of museums and to train them in how to handle, care for, and ultimately exhibit these objects. They will be responsible for documenting and cataloguing the objects, creating appropriate storage boxes, deciding what objects they want to exhibit, making display mounts, writing signage for the display case, and promoting their exhibit. So far the course has focused on the history, function, and purpose of museums and the students have enjoyed a hands-on session with the teaching collection. Soon the course will shift to an almost entirely hands-on focus with the collection, and by the end of April this year the students will mount their exhibition in the display case outside of the Anthropology laboratory at the college.
Allowing students to work with material culture from a deaccessioned museum collection, and breathe new life into the objects, is an incredible learning opportunity for them. Not only will the students gain a unique appreciation for museum collections, they will work together as a team to decide what objects they want to exhibit and how they want to exhibit them. This student-led project is an ideal example of learning-centered teaching, and bringing relevant experiences into the classroom.
Following the use of the teaching collection in the Museum Studies course, the objects can be integrated into other classes at the college—both within and outside of the scope of anthropology. Ideally, the chance to provide hands-on learning experiences to a range of students across the college will create cross-disciplinary collaborations and generate even more novel and unique educational opportunities. Ultimately, the journey of the objects from the BC museum community into an academic teaching collection enables different audiences to appreciate and learn about world cultures in an active and engaging way.
Cara Tremain is an Instructor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Langara College. She holds a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Calgary.