Indigenous Education Site Visit: ROM’s Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples

Our Social Studies course took us to the ROM this October, since then I have been wrestling with how to write this response.

Museums have been a significant part of my life. My childhood included monthly trips to the Smithsonian and I carry memories of tears in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and pride of my volunteer position at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. My first paid museum work came in the form of an art history fellowship at the National Museum for Natural History. In total, I’ve devoted 10 years to museum education in collections ranging from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Buckingham Palace, and my current position at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery here in Toronto, ON.

Museum education ignited my interest in classroom education. I’ve been fortunate to facilitate a handful of awesome tours, but at the end of those enlightening 60-minutes, the tour is over and I will likely never meet those individuals again. I yearned to develop longer, more meaningful relationships with students, relationships that are mutually-beneficial and work to reconstruct a more peaceful, equitable world around us. This is the journey I find myself on today.

Let’s go back to October. When it was announce that we would be visiting the ROM, I was apprehensive. “Royal Ontario Museum” and Indigenous cultures are two stories at odds. Additionally, notice that the gallery is named after a White, South-African-Canadian. (Thank goodness white business men have so much money they can donate gallery space in the name of their mothers! Far and above, the most important reason to have a gallery space for Indigenous people → please note the sarcasm in this statement).

I was also skeptical and carrying the bitterness of having worked in the museum sector for much of my adult life. I was aware of the politics of the museum, the role of the curator, the patriarchal relationships between curators and advisory committees, and lastly the colonial role that the museum has and always will continue to play in the collection and display of ‘artifacts’. I am a little more at ease when a museum is free to the public, as then the notion of the collection becomes a collection for all. However, the ROM is not free to the public, and therefore is a collection for the elite. Not only that, it is a collection (as all are) with an agenda. I knew that each step I would take in my visit to the ROM would be carefully decided before I, myself, made the decision to take it.

Enter the ROM. Our professor had put together a small worksheet to allow ourselves to form in pairs and guide ourselves around the exhibition. This is a good tactic for junior/intermediate/senior grades. Students of these age groups usually have the skills to traverse a gallery on their own. It is also student-direct, in that the student determines which artifacts are interesting to them and allows them to direct their learning through experience and inquiry. These are all positive forms of museum pedagogy, and common tools used by museum educators who wish to distance themselves from a ‘talk, listen and follow’ format.

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In my journey throughout the collection, I found myself interested in a t-shirt. I was drawn to this t-shirt because it looked brand new. Indeed it was only from the 90’s, a relic of the Kahnawake Mohawk Peoples’ occupation of the Mercier Bridge in 1990, in what has come be called the “Oka Crisis.”

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This t-shirt reminded me of the #NoDAPL resistance made by thousands in Standing Rock, ND. It’s nearly 2017 and we still we are living on un-reconciled stolen lands, and we want to become rich off of them. Representatives from the Kahnawake Peoples have joined in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies. I stand in solidarity with Standing Rock, and we should be teaching our students to do the same. I will come back to this point in a moment.

Many of the ‘artifacts’ of the material culture of Indigenous peoples are actually artworks. There is a deeply entrenched bias of Western art, which carries its legacy in the form of making artifact’s out of non-Western art. I would advise any visitor of this gallery to explore the dynamic of this discussion and the role of curation and collection in the display of material culture. I remind myself not to ‘other’ the material culture of Indigenous peoples. In fact, material culture is largely similar in appearance across the globe and throughout time due to design in nature, and subsequent abstraction of design into art.

This, again, is why the t-shirt demanded so much of my attention in this large gallery space. It was a point of empowerment and survival, a symbol of equity, liberality, ways of knowing, and justice. The t-shirt stood a symbol of the struggle, that we the viewer, continue to stand idly by. The t-shirt, for me, would be the point of activation and empowerment for my students, whom I believe hold the future in their hands. If they do not learn how to act and demand for justice and equity, than I will not have done my job.

Up to this point, I felt I would be comfortable taking a school group through this gallery. I would focus my lesson on empowerment and voices heard/unheard, as I try to do for all peoples discussed inside my classroom. And then my emotions began to rise.

At the back of the First Peoples Gallery, there is a film viewing room. There are no attention-grabbing didactics (only small ones to the side) to prepare you for the film: Nanook of the North a film Robert J. Flaherty made in 1922, showcasing the lives of the Inuit. Flaherty was mesmerized by the “happy-go-lucky” lives of the Inuit in spite of the living in rougher Northern conditions.

Perhaps it was seeing this film for the first time, with no lead-up or discussion, or maybe it was the way many of my colleagues laughed when a seemingly endless stream of Inuits climbed out of a kayak in a Chaplin-esque manner. I was livid, but I will not go into my emotions here as they are no longer relevant.

I learned a lot from watching this film. I learned that I would only use this film in a class on media literacy and the history of documentary in ethnography and anthropology. There is a long history of the ethnographic documentaries of ‘exotic’ cultures, and perhaps many of them were done in a sympathetic manner that Flahtery intended He wanted to share the ‘laughter in the fate of hardship’ and portray the ultimate hero in Nanook. He likely loved the Inuit and their culture, though he would not recognize the child he bore with an Inuit actress. Yet, despite his best intentions, I do not wish to every give my students the validation to do something that is offensive just in the name of sympathy. It is no excuse for making a hollywood film that exaggerates and falsifies a culture for the sake of building more sympathy or exoticism. Again, only if I had the time to allow my students to fully unravel this film and the legacy it has produced for documentary filmmaking, would I even consider showing this to my students.

So how does the ROM attempt to show such a controversial and challenging film? Does it teach us anything about the Inuit way of life in the 1920s, other than Whites then and now take advantage of and oppress the true pioneers of this land and the eco-friendly ways? Does it expect that every visitor will understand that there is something inherently problematic in viewing this film in the context of the First Peoples Gallery and not the European Settlers’ gallery?

We continue to make strides each day to reconcile the shame of our ancestors and the resulting privilege we live. For anyone who has felt that the First Peoples Gallery at the ROM leaves too much open for mis-interpretation, then I recommend the following sources of reference and resources:

Lastly, after reading various scholars’ works, notably “The apologizers’ apology” by Mackey (2013), recommending courses of action for empowering Indigenous Education, I wish to act now and invite you to act.

Please show your solidarity with Standing Rock by supporting the camps, boycotting and pressuring the big industries (TD, Citigroup, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Energy Transfer Partners), call your representatives, police departments, and more. Become a citizen for all, not for yourself, and doing so, model the best that teaching has to offer.


Mackey, E. (2013). The apologizers’ apology. In J. Henderson & P. Wakeham (Eds) Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress (pp. 47–62). (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)