Canadian History at the ROM

First Peoples Gallery.

As previously mentioned I recently spent a day at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).  One of the aspects that I struggled with during my visit was the sections of the museum devoted to Canada.  The first floor of the ROM contains the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada and the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples.

Both spaces address Canada’s history, material culture, and roots but they do so from very different vantage points.  The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada focuses on Canadian heritage from European settlement to present with emphasis on the role of British and French culture within Canada.  The First Peoples gallery space focuses on the cultures and traditions of Indigenous people in Canada both historically and in present life.  This gallery does contain some examples of the impact of colonialism on Indigenous life but it isn’t a prominent feature of the space.

The disconnected narratives of these two spaces bothered me.  The galleries overlapped in terms of time period but they didn’t tell a cohesive narrative about Canada as a whole. Rather the European side of things was presented and the Indigenous perspective was separated out into it’s own space.  The lives of both groups have been interconnected since contact and both are integral to understanding the history of Canada.

In addition to the lack of cohesion in the narrative I didn’t see any mention of Métis culture or identity.  My cynical side thinks that perhaps Métis culture was left out because it didn’t fit neatly in either the European or First Peoples narrative.  The other half of me hopes that I just missed a display that highlights Métis heritage.

The ROM did involve six Indigenous advisers in design decisions for the First Peoples Gallery. I’d be curious to know how actively involved the advisers were in exhibit design, label creation, and object selection.   The Gallery combines historic and modern artifacts with artwork from Indigenous people. However the flow between material culture objects that are labelled in a Western style and Indigenous artwork isn’t clear.  They are mixed together throughout the exhibit and without reading labels closely it is at times difficult to tell what era items are from.

Despite all of my reservations about the layout and premise behind the separate Canadian galleries there were a number of great items on display and the quality of the individual displays was well done.

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