Leanne Unruh | OCAD University, Toronto, Canada

Dialogical Curating: Towards Aboriginal Self-Representation in Museums

This essay proposes the idea of dialogical curating based on Grant Kester’s term “dialogical art,” referring to the idea of allowing conversation with source communities to influence the process and outcome of an artwork, or in this case, a curated exhibition. It may be argued that some recent curatorial strategies and discourse concerning the display of aboriginal objects can be called dialogical. By exploring methods of aboriginal self-representation—such as alternative research and education methodologies—as well as collaboration, it is possible to imagine a curatorial practice that is not a methodology, but a discourse that contributes to de-colonization.

The District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa and the University of British Columbia’s partnership between The Museum of Anthropolgy and Musqueam First Nation will be examined as case studies. These two examples set a precedent for new ways of curating that break down the barriers between curatorial staff, museum visitors, and local indigenous communities. They also help deconstruct the normally exclusive fields of fine art and anthropology. These traditional methods of museum display are problematic because they attempt to fit objects of indigenous material cultures into two Western categories, the art-object and artifact, without regard for how indigenous communities see these objects.

The District Six Museum and UBC’s partnership with Musqueam First Nation both attempt to use dialogue between the museum and local indigenous communities to tell what Linda Tuhiwai Smith has called “counter-stories.” This term implies not that Western history needs to include indigenous histories within its discourse, but that it needs to allow for the fact that not all knowledge fits into its chronology. By telling counter-stories through museum exhibitions, the District Six Museum and UBC effectively create a space for conversation about the co-existence of differing versions of history.

Michael Brenson has stated that: “When artistic and curatorial imaginations are applied to the development of interaction among actual people, challenging all participants both to confront real life situations and to transform them through an enhanced communal understanding, conversation is revealed as an activity that is indispensable to an inclusive vision.” Curatorial practices that involve conversations and partnerships with indigenous communities are, therefore, integral to the continued de-colonization of museums. By allowing the counter-stories of indigenous peoples to break down narratives of the past, both the District Six Museum and UBC contribute to breaking down the barriers of post-colonial thought.