Why do we collect?

“Just because somebody has possession of an item doesn’t mean they necessarily own it” –Roxi Ruuska

The GLAM blog club theme of collect bought up many questions in my mind in regards to First Nations culture in archives and museums such as, why do we collect it and who for?  What does this mean for ownership of culture?

Why do we collect?

Regarding First Nations culture, people often state that one of the reasons why archives and museums collect First Nations cultural heritage is to preserve it from its inevitable historical decay or loss. I would argue this reasoning was conceived to legitimise the theft of cultural heritage and is false as First Nations people do not need help preserving culture.  For example, there are some First Nation stories that talk about events that happened 13,000 years ago and these are only the stories “proven to be true” by Western institutions. There are many other stories that discuss a lot older events.

The “preserve forever” mentality is very much based on Western idea of time being linear and irreversible (Smith, 2012, 64). It is also a colonial value judgment and is part of colonial institutions deciding what is and is not valuable now and in the future.

Recently, a colleague experienced the “preserve forever” mentality from a museum worker who video recorded a First Nations dance performance in her gallery to coincide with an exhibition launch. The museum worker did seek permission from the performers to do so. She said she did the recording because she wanted the dance to be “preserved forever”. Which seems preposterous when that dance has been taught, learnt, and undertaken for thousands of years.

This also brings up the conversation of ownership. Does the fact the museum worker got permission to record mean the museum owns it and if so, does that mean they own it forever? Can the performers and/or their descendants rescind this permission? There are many issues around this. If the museum legally “owns” the recording nothing stops them from putting the dance recording into different contexts the dance was not meant to be in. Like, maybe in fifty years the museum puts the dance recording as part of exhibition titled Primitive dancing or something similar, completely denigrating and de-contextualising the dance that is in the video. Or they start playing only snippets of recording when the dance needs to the experienced in its entirety to be understood. This is why many First Nations people, including myself, would say culture, if not being preserved in the right context, it is not being preserved at all.

However, we see this a lot as most of First Nations cultural heritage in archives and museums is in the wrong context as it is being preserved unnaturally behind glass or in storage. This can disregard that this cultural heritage is part of living cultures and that some cultural heritage needs to be touched and used for the memory embedded in them to be learnt and sustained.

Furthermore, unnatural preservation by archives and museums can deny First Nations peoples’ autonomy regarding our own cultural heritage. If our autonomy was being respected, then we should choose what gets preserved even if it means some cultural objects deteriorate. Some stories are not meant to be preserved in a physical form. Nevertheless, many museums will not let that happen with the cultural heritage objects in their collections and will only return or repatriate cultural objects if the relevant First Nations community has the means to preserve cultural objects to museum standards.

If First Nations cultural heritage is being preserved unnaturally and this conflicts with First Nations community interests, then it asks the question who are archives and museums collecting First Nations cultural heritage for?

Many archives and museums will say they collect for everyone to access to this cultural heritage. But again if this collection conflicts First Nations community interests, then we are not part of this everyone. In fact, some will argue First Nations people and other people of colour were never the intended audience for archives and museums. Instead, archives and museums were designed by colonisers to legitimise colonisation to misrepresent ‘The Other” and falsify history.  The result being, when white visitors entered different colonial museums or read different historical records they were confronted persuasive evidence of their white superiority which alleviated any guilt they might have about colonial conquest (Levine-Rasky, 2013, 179).

Additionally, “collecting for everyone” can be potentially harmful to some First Nations communities if what is being collected is contains secret or sacred information. What’s more, if collecting for everyone means that everyone has the same Eurocentric access conditions, then First Nations people and other people of colour will continue to face structural issues that may impede from accessing their own cultural heritage in archive and museum collections.

In conclusion, if archives and museums continue to collect and preserve First Nations cultural heritage, they must do so based on the interests of First Nations communities and must be willing to change their perceptions around preservation, to be not just in a Western way and reform their collecting and preserving practices.

“Colonisation is what is killing our cultures.  If our culture is dying, I’d rather it dies with us, than behind glass at a museum”   – Courtney Marsh