I work with a First Nation who has been engaging with museums and museum workers to benefit their own community for over a hundred years. People are well aware of how museums have taken objects and knowledge from their territory, negatively impacting their ability to practice their culture and thrive as a community.  Together, we work to understand the full impact of museums on Indigenous well-being over time, which includes how the Nation actively uses museums today to build a better future for the next generation to come.

 
Faculty of Arts
Jennifer Kramer
South Bend
United States
UBC Public Scholars Award
 

Research Description

First Nations cultural workers are experts on the ways that museum practices – which include the work of collecting objects and knowledge, exhibitions, repatriation, and digitally sharing information with communities – have impacted their ability to flourish as a community and to revitalize and strengthen Indigenous laws and ways of life. Museum professionals who work with First Nations are beginning to look at how their work preserving and sharing information about the past can benefit community well-being. Although well-intentioned, this new focus risks repeating the damage of colonial projects that were also meant to serve the ‘best interests’ of Indigenous communities. For example, in British Columbia programs to ‘help’ First Nations peoples have undermined their ability to feed themselves, to raise their children, to perform cultural ceremonies, to make art, to learn about their own past, and to exercise authority over their own bodies and Nations. My dissertation research proposes to study museums practices and their past and continued impact on well-being in Indigenous communities in partnership with the Nuxalk First Nation. As part of this project, I will produce a radio show on the impact of past museum collecting on Nuxalk well-being in collaboration with the Nuxalk First Nation’s Ancestral Governance Office (AGO) and the Nuxalk Radio Board (NRB).

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

To me, being a public scholar is about holistic and caring accountability. It demands that both what and how I research is ethical and meaningful to the communities I work, create, and engage with.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

I believe it is important to build collaborative relationships with the communities and places in which we work and research. The Public Scholars Initiative provides support for developing new and necessary approaches that break the mold of what academic scholarship can look like in order to serve those communities better. This can mean applying theoretical knowledge to an unexpected medium, such as creating a radio program that asks questions about museum work. It can also mean slowing the pace of research to build trust and mutual respect between participants. By stretching these boundaries, the PSI offers the opportunity to take public partnerships seriously and rethink what research can be.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My PhD is an extension of what I’ve learned about social justice from my work in museums, non-profit, and community-based contexts. From these experiences, I believe my strengths lie the slow, everyday work of building reciprocal relationships and imagining with community partners how cultural knowledge and heritage can be mobilized for social change. These skills are vital and relevant across public and academic disciplines. In the future, I hope to continue to improve my ability to engage in participatory, community-based, and relational work in both museum and community contexts.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

I am invested in partnering with First Nations peoples to think about the role of museums in contributing to Indigenous sovereignty, cultural continuity, and self-determination. While there are many ways of doing ethical and socially-impactful museum work, I am inspired by initiatives which look beyond the boundaries of exhibition halls and museum-controlled spaces to reach a wider audience by meeting communities where their needs and interests are. Creating a radio program on the history of museum collecting in Nuxalk territory is one example of how my research engages with community partners. Through my dissertation, I aim to center the Nuxalkmc (Nuxalk people) as the authority over their well-being, over the role museum practices have had in their lives, and in how individuals are contributing to their own Nation’s resiliency and cultural resurgence. I also see myself as part of a community of museum scholars. By critically examining the ways in which museums are entangled with settler colonialism, I hope to contribute to a broader conversation around the harm museum work has caused in the past, the continued ways it undermines Indigenous rights and sovereignty, and the potential it has for imagining and creating decolonial futures.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

As a non-Indigenous scholar who studies museums, I aspire to contribute to the public good through research that is rigorous and self-reflexive, community-led, public-facing and focused on social justice. I do this by studying the ethics of past and ongoing museum work, and by allying museum practices and resources to priorities identified by First Nations communities. I hope this research will also guide museum workers towards just relations with Indigenous communities and will produce work that is meaningful and relevant to the Canadian public.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I decided to go to graduate school while working for a NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) department in an anthropology museum in the states. While the program’s intentions to return ancestors to Native American Nations were good, it lacked the capacity and ability to imagine opportunities for justice outside of the bureaucratic processes of the law. I saw the need for people within museums to connect with the innovative, creative, and political initiatives happening on the ground in Indigenous communities. Pursuing a PhD has given me the opportunity to do just that, while also giving me the theoretical tools to better understand the limits and possibilities of museums as instruments of change.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I was drawn to UBC because of the many curators and researchers partnering with the Museum of Anthropology. MOA has a notable reputation for critical and self-reflective scholarship, as well as many years of ethical and collaborative engagement with First Nations. The combination of rigorous museum work along with the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded, community-focused scholars made UBC an exciting place to continue my studies.

 

Being a public scholar is about holistic and caring accountability. It demands that both what and how I research is ethical and meaningful to the communities I work, create, and engage with.