Ten Books to Contextualize Reconciliation in Archives, Museums, and Public History

Krista McCracken

trc-coverIn June 2015 following the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada I wrote an Active History post about “The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation.” Over a year has passed since the TRC concluded its work and much of what I wrote in that post is still true.

I still wholeheartedly agree with the TRC’s statement that “there is an urgent need in Canada to develop historically literate citizens who understand why and how the past is relevant to their own lives and the future of the country. Museums have an ethical responsibility to foster national reconciliation, and not simply tell one party’s version of the past. ” (Summary of the Final Report of the TRC, p. 308)  I also still think that archives have a similarly important role in preserving and teaching about Indigenous communities and the history of Canada.

This year, as September rolled around, I received a number of requests for reading recommendations and instruction suggestions around teaching about public history, museums, archives, and reconciliation.  In light of those requests I’ve created a list of ten books and articles that contextualize and explore the role cultural heritage organizations have in reconciliation and responding to the work of the TRC in Canada.

This list is merely a starting point and there are many other sources where students and scholars can learn about residential schools and reconciliation.  Additionally, in all cases I would suggest that listening to the voices of survivors and Indigenous communities is a crucial part of learning about the history of residential schools and that heritage professionals need to be thinking about what it means to be an ally.  Conversations about privilege, reconciliation, and decolonial practices can be challenging but they are something that need to happen.

Archives and Reconciliation

Crystal Fraser and Zoe Todd, “Decolonial Sensibilities: Indigenous Research and Engaging with Archives in Contemporary Colonial Canada,L’Internationale.

This is my go to piece when people want a short introduction about the role of archives, colonialism, and the preservation of the legacy of residential schools.  Fraser and Todd examine the colonial roots of archival holdings and archival institutions and suggest “applying a historically-informed critical decolonial sensibility in our engagement with the archives.”  This article makes a strong case for the role archives play in forming historical narratives and the need to create archival spaces that acknowledge settler colonialism.

Lisa P. Nathan, Elizabeth Shaffer, Maggie Castor, “Stewarding Collections of Trauma: Plurality, Responsibility, and Questions of Action“,  Archivaria 80 (2015): 89-118  

This article addresses the fundamental challenges associated with caring for archival collections of trauma.  The article is grounded in a reflection of the development of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and the realities of working in a complicated space of colonization and reconciliation.  Nathan, Shaffer and Castor’s piece will resonate particularly strongly with anyone who works in an archives which holds residential school records, materials relating to historical trauma, or colonial relationships.

Anne J Gilliland and Sue McKemmish, “The Role of Participatory Archives in Furthering Human Rights, Reconciliation and Recovery“, Atlanti: Review for Modern Archival Theory and Practice 24 (2014): 78-88.

Gilliland and McKemmish argue the benefits of creating participatory archival models that incorporate community values and perspectives. They also look at the role community and grassroots archives can play in healing and documenting marginalized groups. Though this article doesn’t directly mention Indigenous communities in Canada it does examine international models of reconciliation and archival practices relating to Indigenous communities abroad.  Gilliland and McKemmish provide suggestions on how to embed human rights into participatory and community based archival processes.

Sue McKemmish, Livia Iacovina, Lynette Russell, and Melissa Castan, Archival Science (2012) Vol. 12 special issue on “Keeping Cultures Alive: Archives and Indigenous Human Rights“.

This special journal issue focuses on the role archives and archivists can play in supporting Indigenous human rights and in the preservation of Indigenous culture.  Many of the articles in this issue are framed around the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the inherent right of Indigenous communities to perverse and access their own history.  Perspectives on archival practice and relationship with Indigenous communities are discussed in the context of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.  This is a good starting point for anyone interested in learning about larger international conversations about reconciliation, human rights, and archives.

Museums and Reconciliation

Miranda J Brady, “The Flexible Heterotopia: Indian Residential Schools and the Canadian Museum of Civilization”, Peace and Conflict Journal of Peace Psychology 19 (2013): 408-420.

Written in 2013 this article was completed prior to the TRC’s final report.  However it is still worth reading for its reflection on the role of Canada’s national museums in interpreting the legacy of residential school. It closely examines the “First People’s Hall” at the former Museum of Civilization and looks at national representation of residential schools in museums. Brady also reflects on issues of accessibility of museum spaces for Indigenous people, the need for museums to seek consent and input from communities, and the challenges of creating insightful exhibits which reflect on complex ongoing histories.

Bryony Onciul, “Telling Hard Truths and the Process of Decolonizing Indigenous Representations in Canadian Museums” in Challenging History in the Museum: International Perspectives, New York: Routledge (2016): 33-46.

Onciul explores the practice of telling hard truths and decolonization through the lens of creating community driven museum exhibits. This chapter examines the process surrounding two specific museum exhibits at the Glenbow Museum and Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park as a means of reflecting on community based museum practice.  Pointedly Onciul argues that “communities may choose to avoid emphasizing the difficult history of colonialism and instead use self-representation as part of a strategy to build community pride and reconnect per-contact life with current living traditions”. This chapter does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of letting communities decide for themselves what type of historical information they would like to exhibit and the need to approach conversations of historical trauma with respect and care.

Emily Grafton and Julia Peristerakis, “15 Decolonizing Museological Practices at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” in Indigenous Notions of Owenship and Libraries, Archives, and Museums ed. Camille Callison et al., Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. (2016): 229-243

This chapter by Grafton and Peristerakis is one of many case studies in this book that looks at the relationship of Indigenous communities and cultural heritage organizations.  In this instance the chapter focuses on the work of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) to develop a decolonized museum practice that is comprised of community collaboration, Indigenous-centered research methodologies, and the inclusion of Indigenous rights-based content throughout every museum space.  Grafton and Peristeraskis rightly acknowledge that “the intention of many of these practices has been to decolonize, but the outcomes of these intentions has not always been decolonial.” The chapter goes on to note the challenge of creating a decolonial space within a traditionally colonial context and colonial institution (eg. government funded heritage spaces).

Public History and Residential Schools

Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, UBC Press, 2010.

Paulette Regan was the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada and pointedly argues in this book the need for Indigenous and settler Canadians to actively engage in healing and reconciliation. Regan discusses the need for Canada as a whole to look at present and past realities around colonialism and inequality. As Laura Madokora asserted in a 2011 Active History post this book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning about personal and national approaches to reconciliation and the role we all have in learning about a shared history and future.

John Millloy, “Doing Public History in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, The Public Historian 35, no.4. 

This article looks at the work of the TRC from a public history perspective and it also examines the challenges of producing a residential school archive that is accessible to scholars, the public, and Indigenous community members.  This article is a good place to start for anyone interested in learning about the background to the establishment of the TRC, the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the relationship of record keeping to reconciliation.

Kaleigh Bradley, “Why Non-Indigenous Canadians need to Share the Burden of the Residential School System

Kaleigh’s Active History post speaks directly to the profound silences in traditional archives relating to residential schools as well as the need for Settler Canadians to learn about the legacy of residential schools and for us all to work towards reconciliation.  This is a great short piece that can be used at the undergraduate level to introduce a more fulsome discussion of reconciliation.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and Arthur A. Wishart Library.  She is a co-editor at Active History.

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One thought on “Ten Books to Contextualize Reconciliation in Archives, Museums, and Public History

  1. queenie archibald

    There will be no reconciliation unless Treaties are honored. Fair sharing
    of our lands and resources, without this our people live in third world conditions…economically deprived.

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