The MOA launches a massive digital collection

Next month, UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA), the Musqueam Indian Band, the Sto:lo Nation, Sto:lo Tribal Council and the U’mista Cultural Society will launch the first-ever digital network of more than 300,000 Northwest Coast objects.

Called the Reciprocal Research Network, this Web-based resource links collections of 12 partner organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution in the U.S., and Oxford and Cambridge in England.

Designed to foster the exchange of knowledge, the RNN invites geographically dispersed users and institutions – including originating communities – to carry out individual or collaborative cultural heritage research projects.

“This technology makes it possible to research our cultural heritage held at museums around the world from our home communities,” says Terry Point, a Musqueam associate arts researcher who has been providing community feedback on the RNN’s design and direction since 2004.

For many Aboriginal communities, this is the first time they will see materials and objects that were previously scattered in museums across Canada and the world, rendering them unknown and inaccessible to the communities that created them.

“Unlike other museums, we have always tried to democratize our practice, and work directly with communities to represent communities and let communities represent themselves,” says Anthony Shelton, Director of MOA, who for more than five years has overseen a $55.5-million renewal of the Museum entitled A Partnership of Peoples.

The RNN represents a major cornerstone of MOA’s renewal project, which was unveiled in January. Other renewal features include 5,800 square feet of new, state-of-the-art exhibit space along with recording studios and sound booths that will provide a resource for preserving Indigenous languages.

These innovations consolidate and strengthen MOA’s place as Canada’s largest teaching museum and a premier exhibitor of global arts, says Shelton.

“The RRN provides a mechanism to digitally repatriate Indigenous collections and archives,” says Shelton, who notes that instead of physically removing material from the building, electronic versions can be created that provide an active resource in the RNN’s database. “This will create, over time, a different arena in which researchers and people in the originating communities interact.”

Such exchanges are already underway. Recently during the RNN’s pilot phase, a Musqueam elder came across a rattle he recognized as one used by his family for a cleansing ceremony. He notified the Cambridge University curator that such objects are sacred and are not suitable for public display.

“It provides an equal playing field for sharing knowledge,” says Point. “Aboriginal people can bring their expertise to the table whether it’s cultural specificity or language.”

The decolonization of knowledge is something Shelton hopes the Museum will start to achieve as it becomes a resource for Indigenous communities. To this end, a new hybrid space within the Museum houses the visible storage “multiversity” galleries. More than 10,000 objects in the collection that were previously difficult to view, along with their interpretations, are now presented for the public. The interpretations are a product of the Museum’s collaboration between curators and communities, which Shelton says has generated a new thesaurus of criteria based on community preference rather than museological dictates.

The MOA Partnership of Peoples Renewal Project is funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Province of British Columbia, the Koerner Foundation, Stewart and Marilyn Blusson, the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts, Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund.