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Ursula Johnson challenges the treatment of Indigenous material and linguistic culture Discursive exhibit about colonialism’s impact on Indigenous culture and language

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Photos by Kyle West

By Drew Simpson

The museum is still and rested thirty minutes after opening at 11 a.m. Light grey undertones of the tile, the walls and even the clear glass feed into this state. The only audible sounds are the receptionist chatting with the artist, Ursula Johnson.

Another glass door with grey undertones opens to Rheanne Chartrand, the museum curator. It is as if the grey cancels out the obnoxious glare of light the door would have produced. Chartrand motions towards the exhibit entrance.

At first sight, the exhibit seems simple. A side room leads into what feels like a room filled with statements. Baskets seemingly non-functional sit on metal shelving with tags attached. A database, a scanner and a pair of delicate white gloves demonstrate otherwise.

Exhibit attendees are encouraged to wear the gloves, choose a basket and scan the tag as a database educates them in seconds on what the artifact they are holding is. This one is a puppy holder.

The process of the gloves, scanning and reading the information resembles a museum’s archive room. As Chartrand mentions, Johnson points out the limitations of the database’s structure.

“A lot of cultural signifiers or references or terms and their use cannot fully be archived within that database. There’s also no space for a lot of community information or space for contested stories or histories related to that object,” explained Chartrand.

Leaving the Archive Room and entering the main room, black text describing the exhibit sits on a lamented white background stuck to the wall. The description of the exhibit entails three distinct spaces: The Archive Room, the Museological Grand Hall and the Performative Space.  

The Museological Grand Hall holds empty exhibit glasses with white etchings on two sides, labeling the basketry. Johnson clarifies the archive room’s parody permitting persons to touch the artifacts, yet the empty exhibit glasses do not allow people to touch anything even though the cases are empty.

Furthermore, the Museological Grand Hall reiterates the history of institutions bringing back artifacts from the Indigenous maker. Often times it is in awe of the spectacle without aiming to understand how the artifact was made.

Historically, many ‘artifacts’ have been mislabelled and misnamed. The etchings and labels pose as recipes and when coupled with the language they tell how each basket was made.

Paired with the Archive Room, the Museological Grand Hall also gambles the idea of who has the authority to name things and to describe their history. Mirroring Johnson’s sense of humour, the Archive Room does so with a comical twist.

If these neo-artifacts and their descriptions take their place in the chronological database, years later the discussion of pairing history to understand these artifacts will be comical to those aware of the satire.

Within the main room and behind a parting wall there is a long tool about three inches wide and three feet long, sitting on a couple of blonde plywood. It has a seat for the performer to sit and split the wood.  There are wood shavings like locks of curly blonde hair scattered on the ground. Other smaller tools sit to the side.

The Performative Space is where Johnson performs traditional Mi’kmaw basket-making for the audience. However, she purposely produces unusable splints, as an opposition to set the Indian on display. The entire exhibit is a humorous yet challenging discursion concerning the institution’s treatment of Indigenous material and linguistic culture.

The performance is loud. I helped lift the wood while two other persons scattered squares of mats underneath it. It is ironic that the performance is loud given how institutions like museums have set the Indigenous maker on display to perform their knowledge.

Except for this time, what is being performed is false knowledge, as Johnson purposely makes beginner mistakes when processing the wood, which also speaks to the disconnection between generations.

Ultimately, the three spaces combine to describe a long and large discussion around colonialism and the impact on Indigenous material and linguistic culture. Specifically, it challenges the museums. Certain museums still find this show controversial, although the exhibit has been touring for the past four years.

“All the institutions that have taken the show are always doing things to open up their collections. They are already doing things to break down the idea of the Indian on display. The institutions that don’t have those practices, that are mandated in their policies are the ones that are terrified of the show. They are the ones that can’t take it because it’s too risqué for them,” explained Johnson.

Ultimately hearing Johnson describes the deeper roots of the exhibit changed the visuals of the room. Mi’kwite’tmn (Do You Remember) takes a simple room and fills it with rich stories. These stories are finally told by the right person who simultaneously parodies that authority.

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