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Indigenous Heritage and Public Museums: Exploring Collaboration and Exhibition in Canada and the United States

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
The struggle for Indigenous rights to self-determination has included the recognition that Indigenous peoples are stakeholders in the treatment of their cultural heritage within museums. Large public museums tasked with representing Indigenous heritage tend to support the principle of working with communities to create exhibits, but studies on specific practices are lacking. I address this problem by asking: “What does ethical collaborative practice look like in the context of museum exhibit creation?” My research falls under three themes: 1) the history of collaborative practice; 2) collaborative processes; and 3) exhibit design. I show that patterns of increased collaboration were influenced by larger trends in Indigenous rights movements, and introduce the term “Indigenous museology” to frame engagement between Indigenous peoples and museums. I have defined Indigenous museology as museum work done “with, by, and for” Indigenous peoples, whereby they are recognized as primary stakeholders in museological practices. This dissertation presents a broad overview of the development of Indigenous museology over time, while focusing on exhibit creation as a key practice. My fieldwork consisted of a multi-site ethnographic study at four large, public museums: the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii; the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories; the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado; and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. By exploring how these museums have engaged Indigenous peoples in exhibit creation, I found a variety of independent adoptions of similar principles. My results show that museums adopt a range of methods to engage communities, and that a “one-size-fits-all” practice for collaboration is impractical. Several patterns emerged that illustrate models for good practice. A preferred approach is to engage Indigenous peoples from the outset of projects. Even better is the involvement of Indigenous peoples as staff museum members working on interpretation. Techniques for effective design include storytelling, mobilizing “Native voice,” and programming that includes Indigenous peoples. Strong institutional mission and vision statements are also important. These ways of working are significant trends in museum practice. Finally, research on Indigenous museology illustrates how ethical, collaborative practices manifest and can be further developed within museums.
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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes.
Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Nicholas, George
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