Skip to content

Museum of Anthropology at UBC reopens as a place for lively learning

The upgraded museum has ushered in new ways for local First Nations to reconnect with its pieces, says curator of Indigenous engagement Damara Jacobs-Petersen of the Squamish Nation
Museum of Anthropology curator of Indigenous engagement Damara Jacobs-Petersen shows off a new addition to the museum, a canoe by Stz’uminus artist Qap’u’luq—John Marston.

It might not look too different upon first glance, but the freshly reopened Museum of Anthropology at UBC has undergone more than a few noteworthy changes in recent months.

Last week, the UBC museum opened its doors to the public after an 18-month hiatus. The closure had been for seismic upgrades, a $40-million retrofit ensuring the facility can now withstand a once-in-2,500-year earthquake, but it’s the subtle upgrades within that might be the most notable of all.

Where there had once been information plaques written by museum staff beneath the artifacts and objects, now lies information written by the First Nations communities themselves.

“They’re now coming from Indigenous people, there are a lot of first person quotes,” said MoA's curator of Indigenous engagement, Damara Jacobs-Petersen.

“So when you’re standing in front of a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw pole, you’re going to hear from a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw chief telling you this pole belongs to their family. This is what it means. This is what it’s sharing. It’s my family. It’s my lineage. It’s my history,” she said.

Jacobs-Peterson, from the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), said the inclusion of voices from real people gives authenticity to the descriptions and respect to the items being showcased and the families and Nations they belong to.

For some First Nations members visiting the museum, it might provide a warm and welcoming first introduction to their own history and culture. Many of those who visit do so in order to reconnect with their traditions and customs, said Jacobs-Peterson.

“Being a teaching museum, people can request to see belongings,” she said.

“If there are baskets that are connected to certain family members, or wall weavings, or artworks, you can make a request and explain that you’re a member of the Tsleil-Waututh or Squamish Nations and you’re hoping to visit these objects and reconnect.”

The museum provides funding to pay for parking, a lunch on site, and the items will be showcased in a private room so visitors can view them at their leisure. For Indigenous youths looking to reconnect with their culture, Jacobs-Peterson also runs a Native Youth Program for those aged between 14 and 18.

“It’s for teenagers who might not have a very firm, clear sense of being able to stand up and confidently say ‘I’m Squamish’ or ‘I’m Tsleil-Waututh,'” she said.

“It’s to those people who these particular programs and opportunities are so critical.”

While the collection of Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh objects at the museum is small in scale when compared to those of other First Nations, the objects that await within the museum walls are no less significant. A Coast Salish basketry collection, comprising intricately woven baby carriers and storage baskets, sits alongside prints, jewellery, figurines and blankets. There are newer pieces in there too, including the Challenger snowboard designed by Squamish Nation artist Xwalacktun for the 2010 Olympics.

Throughout the museum there is a mix of ancient and contemporary pieces. Visitors who enter the great hall will be greeted, for example, by a canoe with 14 different paddles representing numerous separate Nations. Each comes from a different time period, a paddle crafted in 1804 might sit alongside one carved just last year.

Including more contemporary pieces helps MoA step away from the archetypal stifling and stuffy nature of typical museums, said Jacobs-Peterson. It leans into the idea that the museum is a thriving, warm, learning environment, where the objects should be interacted with – not stared at from the opposite side of a sheet of glass.

“We don’t view the collection as artifacts, it’s more as objects and belongings because they do belong to families,” she said.

“I think it’s a really important thing for visitors to contemplate and think about because people come into museums and think it’s a place where you have to sit and observe and be quiet, and read about these things that are from long, long ago, but education doesn’t have to be that way.”

Discussion is encouraged not frowned upon, and there are many facets of the museum that encourage play and contact with the items, she said.

On June 13, the museum welcomed 3,100 people through its doors for its opening evening. The weekend that followed was equally as successful, with the second night's numbers surpassing the first. The air, said Jacobs-Peterson, was anything but still.

Education was equal parts respectful and interactive, conversation was rife and there was hubbub rather than hush – exactly how a museum should be. 

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

[email protected]