Whose ROM is it any­way?

ROM’s Anishi­naabeg: Art & Power is a re­fresh­ing ges­ture to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that re­veals how long that road will be


New ex­hibit re­con­sid­ers role of mu­seum in show­cas­ing In­dige­nous ar­ti­facts,

At the Royal On­tario Mu­seum’s brand new show, Anishi­naabeg: Art & Power, the cer­e­mo­nial dress of Sit­ting White Ea­gle, a prom­i­nent medicine man from the Saulteaux Anishi­naabe, rests on man­nequined limbs, pre­ciously be­hind glass.

This, our west­ern eyes would tell us, is noth­ing new. But there, right along­side it, is Sit­ting White Ea­gle him­self, a ghostly im­age in black and white, right­sized at full height and wear­ing that very out­fit some­where out on the Saskatchewan plains be­fore his death in 1930. It’s the first clue that Art & Power is, in fact, some­thing new. Such in­ti­mate con­nec­tions, his­tor­i­cally, have been rarely made in such places as the ROM, which for most of its ex­is­tence served the pur­pose of un­cou­pling such ob­jects from the ac­tual hu­man be­ings who used them.

Such was the role of colo­nial in­sti­tu­tions in our gov­ern­ment’s broad project of era­sure: In­dige­nous peo­ple — their prac­tices, lan­guages, art and cul­ture — were to be seen as things of the past as we grad­u­ally wiped the slate clean of in­con­ve­nient no­tions of dif­fer­ence and be­long­ing.

Well, enough of that, the ROM says, fi­nally and at last, and Art & Power is its em­blem and an out­ward sig­nal that it un­der­stands its his­toric com­plic­ity in such things.

Josh Basseches, the ROM’s direc­tor, tac­itly ac­knowl­edged as much, declar­ing at a pri­vate pre­view last week that the show “serves as a pro­found re­minder for an in­sti­tu­tion such as ours” that the power to rep­re­sent has sat along­side the power to ex­clude for far too long.

As par­tial rem­edy, Basseches an­nounced that the mu­seum had es­tab­lished a new po­si­tion, the cu­ra­tor of In­dige­nous art and cul­ture, that would be held by some­one of na­tive her­itage “to en­sure In­dige­nous per­spec­tives are re­flected in the gal­leries and through­out the mu­seum.”

“We must seek out dif­fer­ent voices to en­sure sto­ries are not told in iso­la­tion or from a sin­gle mu­seum per­spec­tive,” he said, and the ROM was less in­ter­ested in us­ing its po­si­tion to par­tic­i­pate in the vi­tal con­ver­sa­tion about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion now at the cen­tre of our na­tional agenda than “how to lead it.”

It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary af­fir­ma­tion from a mu­seum direc­tor: that the very in­fra­struc­ture of the in­sti­tu­tion has been built for the wrong rea­sons and that it is com­mit­ted to mak­ing it right. The mu­seum’s open­ing ges­ture puts its money where its mouth is: Art & Power en­listed In­dige­nous artist Saul Wil­liams, one of the founders of the Wood­land School along­side Nor­val Mor­ris­seau and Alan Cor­biere, an In­dige­nous his­to­rian and cu­ra­tor, to guide it step by step.

They worked along­side ROM cu­ra­tor Arni Brown­stone, but I think it’s fair to say the show very much be­longs to Wil­liams and Cor­biere. Ev­ery­thing about it sub­tly digs at con­ven­tion: the room is haunt­ing and low-lit, with ob­jects ra­di­at­ing in an arc around a cen­tral vit­rine, min­gling an­cient and con­tem­po­rary. Wall texts are not coolly de­tached in­for­ma­tional blurbs, but sto­ries, of­ten per­sonal, and rooted in ex­pe­ri­ence, not aca­demics.

The perime­ter is lined with Wood­land School paint­ings by the likes of Mor­ris­seau, Carl Ray, Daphne Od­jig, Jack­son Beardy and Wil­liams, with the oc­ca­sional pop of con­tem­po­rary art (Na­dia Myre’s Med­i­ta­tions on Red #2).

Their ar­range­ment, not along geo­graphic or chrono­log­i­cal lines — head­ings like “Hurt,” “Dance,” “Spirit” and “Trans­for­ma­tion” in­form the group­ings, each paired with an an­cient pic­to­graph — is a dec­la­ra­tion by Wil­liams and Cor­biere: that these are our sto­ries, told our way.

In a room of largely very old things, it seems fresh and, crit­i­cally, very much alive.

For too long, mu­seum projects to cast In­dige­nous cul­ture as an his­tor­i­cal relic de­nied its very real strug­gle to sur­vive.

Here, the cu­ra­tors weave that re­sis­tance nar­ra­tive tightly into those ob­jects. The ex­tra­or­di­nary beauty of his­tor­i­cal pieces of bead and quill­work ad­dress, not ig­nore, the core con­flict of us and them.

Sim­i­larly, the im­age of Sit­ting White Ea­gle — a mo­tif re­peated with other peo­ple and pieces — loosens the mu­seum’s hold on his habit as mere ar­ti­fact and re­si­t­u­ates it in a hu­man con­text. It is the shift from ob­ject to sub­ject, thing to be­ing.

The show ties not to broad eth-

For too long, mu­seum projects to cast In­dige­nous cul­ture as an his­tor­i­cal relic de­nied its very real strug­gle to sur­vive

no­graphic anal­y­sis but to the minute de­tail of place and, wher­ever pos­si­ble, the spe­cific, per­sonal sto­ries these ob­jects carry. One, a carved wooden spirit fig­ure wrapped in snake­skin, would be ex­em­plary of a broad carv­ing tra­di­tion in any re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion; here, it’s a win­dow into a nearly two-cen­tury-old tale of re­sis­tance. But can the fu­ture truly be that much dif­fer­ent from the past? “It’s still a colo­nial in­sti­tu­tion,” Cor­biere shrugged, sur­vey­ing Pitwegi­jig’s lit­tle idol.

The ma­jor­ity of the things here are from the ROM’s col­lec­tion, amassed over a cen­tury in many cases by du­bi­ous means — a fact in­sti­tu­tions all over the world now ac­knowl­edge, most of them (the ROM in­cluded) hav­ing a repa­tri­a­tion pol­icy meant to re­turn ob­jects to their In­dige­nous own­ers, when asked.

It’s a nice idea, Cor­biere says, but not a prac­ti­cal one.

“Of course we want to bring these things home, but the re­al­ity is, we can’t. We don’t have the space, we don’t have proper stor­age fa­cil­i­ties,” he says. “We’re strug­gling just to keep the doors open. We would get piece­meal fund­ing to do things year to year, but there was never core fund­ing to keep go­ing. So we’re set up to fail in cer­tain ways.”

Here, the un­in­tended dual mean­ing of Art & Power comes to bear. How­ever well-mean­ing, it also lays bare the gross im­bal­ance that un­der­pins these en­gage­ments. But it’s a start. Anishi­naabeg: Art & Power con­tin­ues at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum to Nov. 19. See rom.on.ca for more in­for­ma­tion.


Sit­ting White Ea­gle’s cer­e­mo­nial dress is dis­played in a case along­side a ghostly im­age of the prom­i­nent Anishi­naabe medicine man wear­ing it him­self be­fore his death in 1930.


In the ex­hi­bi­tion’s “Hurt” sec­tion, works by Nor­val Mor­ris­seau, Blake De­bassige and Carl Ray ad­dress tragedies, like sui­cide or sub­stance abuse.

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