Representationally Hacking a “Life Group” at the Royal Ontario Museum

You have a phrase called “Golden Age.” We do not want to be depicted the way were were, when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now, and we are going be very important in the future. —George Erasmus, Chief, Assembly First Nations 1992.

While visiting the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) this past August I stumbled upon a very interesting museum intervention. It re-curated a static and timeless museum “life group” of native life installed in 1917 with an innovative response that asserted historical change and contemporary relevance.

The updated diorama took the original mannequins created and installed at the ROM under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution and updated them. It removed the corn grinding, basket making, and other “traditional” domestic activities and replaced them with new objects and associated behaviors. Now the native woman shoots with her Sony camera while another person nearby listens to his iPod. Crouching below them, a man with a contemporary sweatshirt reaches for a rechargeable power drill to work on a project.

By retaining the original frame, glass and some of the clothing, the updated exhibit maintains a dialogue between the past history of the original 1917 life group—its related (outdated) stereotypes about native peoples and their behaviors—and the lives of contemporary native peoples.

Displays like the original one were foundational in representing static and unchanging stereotypes of native peoples as in and of the past. Removing it entirely would not erase those stereotypes. The thoughtful way that the curators of this display chose to “representationally hack” the original rather than simply remove it as “out of date” directly challenges those original stereotypes.

I have posted some other images from that visit to the ROM on my Flickr page.

ROM Mohawk Family Group_1

An image of the original “life group.”

LIVING CULTURES
CHANGE AND TRADITION IN INDIGENOUS CULTURES
Contrary to popular stereotypes, indigenous cultures are not relics of the past. They have been influenced by over five centuries of contact with European cultures, but they have also retained core values, beliefs and practices. The challenge for museums is to represent the ongoing interplay of tradition and change that is very much a part of living cultures.

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