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Language Remediation Project Underway at the Western Development Museum: Answering TRC Calls to Action #43 and #67

Language is important. The words we choose to use in our public spaces and our historical interpretation must be inclusive, respectful, current, historically accurate and meaningful. Language also changes with time. What were acceptable narratives, framings and interpretations in the past are now often not, considering new research, changing demographics and public engagement and expectations. This is especially relevant since the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada were released in 2015. Curating museum content requires making choices. Choices about the kind of interpretations we present. Choices about what to include and what gets left out. Choices about the kinds of messages we are sending to visitors. Today, we are choosing to revisit, review and renew those past content choices in all four of our exhibit locations – North Battleford, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Yorkton.

Staff evaluating signs at the WDM North Battleford.

You might have noticed some of our staff out in the galleries, reading and evaluating signs and texts. That’s because the WDM has launched a systematic evaluation of the language used in its galleries. The text in our galleries might have been produced in the early days of the Museum, dating back as far as the 1950s, to as recently as this year. Did you know we have 200,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space? That number does not include our outdoor exhibits. The WDM is physically one of the largest museums in Canada. As such, we have thousands of signs, artifact labels, interpretive panels and historical interpretations in our spaces that are under review.

This process began in response to both the Inclusivity Report: Reconciliation and Diversity at the WDM, released in January 2019, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Calls to Action. Specifically, the work aligns to TRC Calls to Action #43:

We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation;

and #67:

We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of  museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.

In response to the WDM’s Inclusivity Report, this process acts on Recommendation 5: “Develop and implement a plan for exhibit renewal at all WDM locations to increase overall diversity and inclusivity in the stories being told.”

Article 15 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states:

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information. 2. States shall take effective measures, in consultation and cooperation with the indigenous peoples concerned, to combat prejudice and eliminate  discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.

Appropriate language in museum texts and narratives is vital to upholding Indigenous rights, combatting prejudice, eliminating discrimination and promoting empathy. This is one step the WDM is taking towards Reconciliation, redressing the imbalances that have been produced in our galleries over many decades.

The project will have two main phases. The first, currently underway, is language remediation. This process involves examining the language and content of the current exhibits, ensuring it is appropriate and making changes where necessary. The second phase – renewal – will involve examining which stories are underrepresented or absent from our exhibits and determining how to include those stories in partnership with communities.

It is important to note that this process can never truly be complete. Language, terminology and historical writing are fluid and constantly evolving. Museums must be prepared to constantly update their narratives, texts, messages and content to reflect this. Our goal is to ensure all our language is appropriate today, recognizing that at any time the language may change, and the process will repeat.

To prepare for this process, we developed a rubric to evaluate signs. The content of signs is evaluated based on criteria such as:

  • urgency of the change needed;
  • inclusive vs. excluded perspectives;
  • if individuals are named and if Indigenous people are portrayed as individuals;
  • if the diversity of Indigenous nations is acknowledged;
  • if the language is appropriate to and inclusive of people with disabilities and
  • an overall evaluation of the tone of the sign.

Each of these categories can earn a score from zero to five. Zero means the question is not applicable. A score of one is excellent and five is poor. The higher score a sign receives, the more problematic it is and the more urgent are its changes. Oftentimes, we are finding that the most problematic signs are those that exclude multiple perspectives and perpetuate colonial narratives and tropes rather than contain out-of-date words. In other words, what is missing from a sign or a story results in a high score.

Every single sign and label, indoors and outdoors, in each of the four WDM locations is being photographed, inventoried and evaluated using the rubric. It is a long process, but it is important that we are thorough and have a wholistic understanding of the Museum’s content. The evaluations and scores are being tracked on a database. Our aim is to have this portion done by the end of 2019. Once the sign evaluations are complete, we will begin rewriting the most urgent signs and work our way through everything that requires editing. This will take several years to complete. Shifting overarching narratives in the Museum, and making space for a greater diversity of perspectives, will take more time. Community consultations and relationship-building will ensure our information is both accurate and respectful. We look forward to building more partnerships and sharing authority with communities in pursuit of this goal.

We appreciate your feedback. If you see a sign in our galleries that needs review, we would love to hear from you! Contact us at text@wdm.ca. While we cannot respond directly to each email, we will read and consider each one.

By: Kaiti Hannah, Curatorial Assistant and Liz Scott, Curator

Top Photo: Early exhibits at the WDM Saskatoon, 11th Street location, c. 1957. 

 

 

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