Assessing Value: Reflections on the Royal Alberta Museum

I spend a lot of time these days angry; there is so much to be rightfully angry about and I want to write about it all but don’t have enough fucks. Sometimes writing isn’t the best way to respond, however, in this case I know that the only way I might be heard is to write about it. So what has me so angry that I am actually writing about it? This “review” of the newly opened Royal Alberta Museum (a.k.a. the RAM). This opening was a much anticipated event; the original RAM closed its doors to the public after a wonderful 48 hour long celebration in December 2015.

My attention was first drawn to the opinion piece via Facebook, when many friends who had not yet visited the museum expressed their hesitation to visit after it received such a negative review. As someone who has eagerly awaited the opening, who also knows several people who work for the museum, and also has research communication, particularly that of cultural heritage, as an expertise I felt compelled to comment, which I did:

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Now that I’ve visited the RAM I have much much more to say about the opinion piece and why I think it is unfair and misguided.

First, it is challenging to calculate and negotiate cost versus value when assessing cultural and natural resources. As I’ve been discussing with my Issues in Archaeological Methods and Interpretation (Anth395) course students, yes archaeologists are involved in assessing the significance of cultural resources and yes this should include considering the economic significance of said resource BUT it represents only one aspect, is one criteria under which significance or value is assigned.

Yes a museum is a building that requires raw materials, resources, time, energy, labour, and effort to build. These are costly and sure one could reduce them by sourcing alternative materials, cutting down on square footage, etc. BUT a museum is NOT just a building. It is a place. Yes the RAM is a beautiful building; I love its overall design and layout. It has great curb appeal with design features that connect it to other buildings in our downtown cultural hub (the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Winspeare, the Citadel Theatre, the Shaw Conference Center, Churchill Square, City Hall, the under-construction downtown branch of the Edmonton Public Library, Ice District, Rogers Place, MacEwan University); it just “fits” in yet is unique. But a building does not make a place – a place is made by people for people.

The RAM is all about people. I would encourage my colleagues at the museum to share their stories over the next few months and years; the public need to hear about how decisions were made, how much time, effort, and intellectual and emotional labour went into creating a place for everyone to experience – in their own way. Note that I say experience not “enjoy”. Some parts of the museum will not be enjoyed and are not meant to be enjoyed; the section on residential schools, for example, should make us uncomfortable (the part of the opinion piece on the residential school display is particularly problematic but I’ll return to that in a second). How you experience the RAM is up to you and this is a good thing. Other than having to enter or exit through the one entrance to each gallery, you can wander through each gallery however you would like. It also doesn’t matter which order you visit the galleries in. I was there with my five year old and so we just took in whatever caught her eye. I asked her what she wanted to do after reading the titles of the gallery. She made the decisions including when to leave each gallery (so we didn’t actually see everything but that’s what multiple visits are for). Having her take the lead, which she loved, worked because we weren’t forced to go in any particular order nor were there any narratives or descriptions that were unclear if you went through the “wrong way” or “missed” reading something else in the same space. I get that some people won’t like this – they want a “story” that has a start, middle, then end but this approach means telling only one story. How can the curators choose a single narrative? Which one is the “correct” one? Should they choose the “epic” or “dramatic” story as our opinion piece author implies ensuring that “colour” is added to keep the attention of the viewer?

What the author of the opinion piece misses is that this is a museum where the visitor can connect with the objects presented in a way that is meaningful to them. Instead the author states “The whole point of a provincial museum is to highlight the things that make Alberta special. Instead, most of the square footage is devoted towards cataloguing quotidian aspects of Alberta life that existed pretty much everywhere.” This is only one kind of purpose for a museum. Yes things that are special should be celebrated in a provincial museum, but as an archaeologist I also recognize that the “quotidian aspects” are ALSO very important when it comes to understanding and connecting with our past. As James Deetz (1977:161) argues

it is terribly important that the “small things forgotten” be remembered. For in the seemingly little and insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured. We must remember these bits and pieces, and we must use them in new and imaginative ways so that a different appreciation for what life is today, and was in the past, can be achieved.”

It is in these small things, like the canning equipment, radios, and benches the author so disdains, that people connect with the past. For example, last summer when we excavated at Mill Creek Ravine we excavated three GWG buttons and, having owned an excellent pair of their jeans, I was SO excited. One can then imagine my delight in seeing a WHOLE room dedicated to this made-in-Edmonton brand! When my kid asked why I wanted to “look at clothes” I told her about the buttons we’d found (at a site she’d visited several times) and she became excited too. I can imagine other small and large things throughout their galleries that will capture the excitement of one individual and go unnoticed by another. AND THAT’S OK!

FYI: My kid loved the megafauna fossils and reconstructions, in particular the Giant Ground Sloth – after our visit she climbed the stairs in our house “like a sloth”. She also loved putting her face on rocks, playing with kinetic sand, and seeing the tiny baby bear that looked like a dog. We left when she grew tired but only agreed to leave when I promised we’d return again so she could explore more things.

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My kiddo loved this Mantis Shrimp, squealing with glee when it poked its head out to check her out.

Also the author’s suggestion that visitors “could have gazed in horror at a scene of a Cree village plunged into famine when those bison disappeared” is just gross (side note: if you want to understand the importance of bison, go visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage Site). There are other ways to get at the horrors of colonialism without exploiting our indigenous peoples’ suffering and reinforcing colonial narratives at the same time. For example, my favourite part (aside from the GWG exhibit) was the respect and honour given to Manitou Asinîy and to the Elders who provided teachings on this sacred being. The intentional, consistent, and thoughtful recognition of indigenous peoples and being on Treaty 6 territory and the traditional lands of many indigenous people, the acknowledgement of the teachings of Elders that informed the presentation of items, and the use of indigenous language, images, and voices IS powerful and important. As I mentioned in my pre-visit Facebook post, the author also missed the point when they state:

Among the small number of artifacts chosen to represent the province’s gut-wrenching history of residential schools, one of them is literally a pile of the bricks used to build one of the schools. It’s not the only artifact on display, but it’s telling that bricks made the cut. It’s like representing a gulag by simply displaying a bunch of plates and saying “here are the plates that gulag prisoners used.”

In my opinion, residential schools should be physically reduced to a pile of bricks. This was an exceptional choice because it is not the building that is the focus but the stories of those who experienced them that is highlighted an emphasized. If the author was less focused on assigning dollar signs to “tacky kitsch, random antiques and straight-up garbage” they might have instead sat and scrolled through the haunting images present on the interactive displays or listened to the stories of resilience told by those who survived that can be heard in that space.

Sure, maybe the names of well known provincial figures Nellie McClung and Peter Lougheed are missing at the RAM (I didn’t see them but honestly didn’t look for them either). But that’s okay; they are present on buildings, schools, and/or statues/monuments and are part of the curriculum across the province so we won’t forget them anytime soon. They also are part of our colonial heritage – figures that have loomed large in a particular narrative about Alberta’s past – so maybe this new museum is shedding light on others that were previously made invisible by their absence from these kinds of spaces. This again is why the treatment of Manitou Asinîy is so profound and important – it can be visited by anyone free of charge; it is also explicitly described and presented as spiritually significant. It is an object, a being, a rock, a spirit, a story that cannot be assigned any monetary value.

Finally, this opinion piece fails to acknowledge the people – the curators, workers, consultants, teachers, Elders, designers, educators, etc. – who worked on this museum. Their labour is valuable and I bet their wages made up an important chunk of the budget. As previously stated I hope we hear more from them as the RAM settles into its place in our community. We need to make sure that funding for the RAM to grow and change, to represent different voices, and to share more of the small things that tell the stories of our province (see Dr. Shulist’s post on what is really lost when museums don’t get funded adequately and consistently).

So to those who hesitated to go to the RAM, I say go. Have your own experience – that is what it is there for – and assess its value in a way that is meaningful to you.

To the author of the opinion piece, I’ll acknowledge it as that – your opinion – but I’ve decided to not value it as worth the paper it was printed on.

Editor’s Comment: I’m glad to see the Archaeology One sufficiently fired up to provide us with a critical, engaging post after her long, but much needed, break from blogging. While I’m optimistic that we’ll hear from her again soon (maybe about her field work from this summer hint hint), I believe that rather than waiting for her next post at my desk with my red pen poised and ready to edit whatever swear-ridden rant she throws my way, I’ll take advantage of my downtime to visit the RAM and the other downtown places she mentions in her post. Well argued Dr. Biittner.

 

 

Reference Cited: Deetz, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

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2 thoughts on “Assessing Value: Reflections on the Royal Alberta Museum

  1. Shilo Schultz

    I throughly enjoyed your reflection on that opinion piece! After seeing the museum with friends we were all throughly impressed, however at dinner that day my husband (who had not seen it) proceeded to quote that opinion piece to me. I got so worked up I ended up writing my husband a rebuttal, detailing how that opinion piece greatly differed from my own experience and understanding of the museum’s presentations. I 100% agree with you about the bricks. What a moving juxtaposition they created in the display! I hope my husband sees it for himself one day. I think there are lots of opportunities to find meaning and reflection in the RAM, and I look forward to returning many times.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 21, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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