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Royal B.C. Museum reopens some exhibits in First Peoples Gallery

The ceremonial house has been repainted for the first time since 1977 by family members, and two languages have been added to the Our Living Languages exhibit

Portions of the First Peoples Gallery at the Royal B.C. Museum reopened on Tuesday with updated language exhibits and a splash of new paint, after being closed for 15 months.

The ceremonial house belonging to late Kwakwaka‘wakw chief Jonathan Hunt has been repainted for the first time since 1977 by family members, and two languages have been added to the redesigned Our Living Languages exhibit.

Totem Hall and other areas of the First Peoples Gallery remain closed, but the two exhibits are reopening just in time for the start of the cruise-ship season. Norwegian Bliss is set to pull into Ogden Point this afternoon, the first of 315 ship visits to Victoria this year.

“It’s exciting to see the Royal B.C. Museum continue to reopen exhibits that tell the stories of our province’s history,” Lana Popham, minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, said in a statement.

The Jonathan Hunt House is both a museum installation and a working ceremonial house for potlatch ceremonies. Potlatches were outlawed in Canada from 1884 until 1951.

Chief Kwakwabalasami, the late Jonathan Hunt, was a Kwakwaka‘wakw chief who lived in Tsaxis on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island near Fort Rupert.

Over the course of two weeks, two of Hunt’s grandsons, master carver and artist Richard Hunt and Jason Hunt, repainted the house, including house posts, chief seats, dance screen, log drum and the welcome figure.

Richard Hunt, a former museum employee, said he has fond memories of installing the house with his father when the exhibit first opened in 1977.

“It was great to be back working at the museum and it was an honour to restore these family treasures,” he said in a statement.

An arrangement allows the Royal B.C. Museum to exhibit the Jonathan Hunt House re-creation indefinitely while cultural ownership of the house and its images remain in the Hunt family.

Meanwhile, the museum said it has added the pentl’atch and Klallam languages to the redesigned Our Living Languages exhibit, bringing the total number of languages represented to 36.

Tracey Herbert, chief executive officer with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, said B.C. is a “global hotspot” for language diversity and has more than 50 per cent of Canada’s Indigenous languages.

The new exhibit is a “demonstration of the innovative work of the B.C. First Nations language champions who are acknowledged in Canada and around the world as leaders in community-based language revitalization models and strategies,” she said.

The pentl’atch language, previously one of three “sleeping” First Nations languages in B.C. with no active use or learning — the last fluent speaker had died 80 years ago — is being revived by Qualicum First Nation through two English-pentla’ch and German-pentl’ach dictionaries and a smattering of stories written in pentl’ach and in German.

The Klallam language was once a dialect commonly heard in Beecher Bay, around Juan de Fuca Strait, and on the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula, and is still taught and spoken in Washington state, according to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe near Port Angeles.

There was no audio component to the Klallam language exhibit on Tuesday. Museum staff said they are working to get permission for a recording.

Our Living Languages is now housed in a compact, low-ceiling area of the gallery where Haida argillite carvings used to sit.

First-time visitor Melissa Crane said the exhibit reminded her of the Native American cultures around her hometown of Spokane Valley in Washington state.

Crane, visiting with her family on vacation, was fascinated by the house posts in the Jonathan Hunt House. “I’m very curious about the story of Raven.”

Museum CEO Tracey Drake said it was important to reopen the two exhibits while staff work to sort and catalogue the rest of the First Peoples Gallery.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from tourists and British Columbians that they come into the museum and they really want to see the Indigenous galleries,” she said. “We had no Indigenous representation within the museum [exhibits] over the last few years.”

Staff worked over the weekend and “until the last minute” to get the exhibits ready for Tuesday, she said, adding the museum is working closely with First Nation representatives who are leading the rest of the gallery reopening.

The gallery committee now has 22 representatives hailing from six of the seven major First Nations language families in B.C., Drake said. “They’re doing the heavy lifting. We’re just facilitating the work.”

The next phase of reopening is tentatively scheduled for the end of this year, she said.

The Totem Hall has been identified as one of the priority exhibits. Plans are in place for a mini-exhibit on repatriation in the empty space where a Nuxalk totem pole stood for 54 years.

The pole, carved in the mid-1800s in the South Bentinck (Talleomy) on B.C.’s central coast, was taken to Victoria in 1912 during a global wave of unscrupulous purchases and theft of First Nation totem poles by collectors and museums.

It was returned to the nation last February after years of delays and a lawsuit from the Nuxalk Nation.

Previous museum CEO Alicia Dubois faced intense criticism for the decision to close the First Peoples Gallery and Old Town exhibit on Jan 1, 2022. The closings of the popular third-floor galleries were part of an effort to “decolonize” the museum and include more voices from B.C.’s history, the museum said at the time.

Old Town reopened last summer as a smaller, reworked exhibition space with re-contextualized information panels and new information.

About 15 per cent of the items previously on display in Old Town are now in storage, mostly material compromised by time or found to have pest infestations.

Drake said there was no damage found among the First Nation artifacts, but one section will need asbestos-remediation before it can reopen.

While the First Peoples Gallery was closed, the space was used to host First Nations who are in the process of repatriating their possessions from the museum.

Museum officials have said it will be a ­monumental task to sort and catalogue the thousands of pieces in multiple displays in the First Peoples Gallery.

The process is also aimed at correcting omissions and mistakes — one example being a mannequin of a Coast Salish chief that’s been on display for decades wearing regalia from five different nations.

“The museum is fully committed to ensuring significant thought and attention is given, working alongside communities to reopen the gallery to the public,” the museum said in a statement.

Duncan Mulligan, who was visiting the museum on Tuesday for the first time in 10 years, said more spaces like the First Peoples Gallery are needed.

His hometown museum in Quesnel is largely focused on Cariboo pioneer history, he said. Though there’s a large Indigenous population in the area, their history is not well known.

High school curricula are changing that, but there are still a lot of misconceptions, Mulligan said, pointing to controversy surrounding his hometown mayor’s wife, Pat Morton, as one example.

The Lhtako Dene Nation lodged a protest to Quesnel city council last month after Morton was found to be distributing literature skeptical of the history and harms of residential schools.

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