Featured Blog Article by Sarah Rempel.
Sarah joined the CMA team this summer as a heritage interpreter. She was an incredible addition to our team. Thank you Sarah for all your amazing contributions to the CMA.
I’m entering my second and final year of my master’s of Education in Museums and Heritage at the University of Glasgow, and I often struggle to articulate what I’m studying.
Just the other day I attempted to explain my program to an acquaintance, and their response was along the lines of: “Interesting choice. Most people are taking forward-thinking degrees like computer science and medicine, but you’re looking backward…”
The presentation of history is often viewed as irrelevant to the future, or at the very best, museums are seen as static places focused on preservation. Storage facilities and presenting artifacts are certainly important aspects of museums (did you know that most museums and galleries only have the capacity to display around 10% of their collection?), but what excites me most and the reason I entered the field is because museums have the potential to be versatile educational spaces, engaged in the current community and to participate in ongoing local and global conversations. If this sounds too abstract or idealistic, stay with me!
During my summer working at the Cumberland Museum and Archives, I researched and wrote new self-guided walking tours (coming soon!) and assisted with the development of public programming, including giving tours for the new travelling exhibition “A Seat at the Table: Chinese Immigration and British Columbia” which will be on display until June 2024.
As the Chinese Canadian Museum of BC in Vancouver stated, it “is one of the largest museum projects on Chinese Canadian history and culture in Canada to date”(1).
The title, “A Seat at the Table”, has many layers. It’s a celebration of how food can create a sense of belonging and is a form of cultural expression, it’s an invitation to the visitor to symbolically sit down and listen to the stories shared in the exhibit, and it’s a recognition of how Chinese Canadians have historically been denied a voice at the table.
Here are three “forward-thinking” qualities I saw in action through “A Seat at the Table” and the other exhibits during my time at the Cumberland Museum and Archives:
- Awareness: Visitors are introduced to the unique and complex experiences and motivations of multiple generations, whether descendents of early immigrants or recently arrived in British Columbia themselves. In Cumberland, Chinese miners were paid half the wages of European miners and often served as scapegoats for mining accidents. Beginning in the late 1800s Chinese immigrants were subjected to a head tax and later denied citizenship under the 1923 Exclusion Act. The past doesn’t feel as distant when it’s revealed that the exhibit was developed in part as a response to the “sharp rise in anti-Asian racism and hate” in Canada during the Covid pandemic (2). Racism is often driven by fear and the unknown, and learning is an integral defense. An exhibit like this becomes a necessity.
- Representation: Museums are a Western creation which have historically taken the items of “Others”, displayed them as curiosities, and “imposed their own order upon the world” (3). No museum is free of bias, but collaboration is a step towards subverting or at least challenging the colonial narrative (4).
The acknowledgement list for this exhibit is so long! I’ve seen a grandmother proudly point out her family’s photo to her grandkids and listened when someone felt comfortable to share about their personal experience in a guided tour. There is something empowering about seeing yourself represented in a space like this. Cumberland, like each community the exhibit visits, has contributed its own stories, artifacts, and sites making each museum’s interpretation of the exhibit personal and unique.
- Imagination: Speaking of local sites, Cumberland’s Chinatown, located at Coal Creek Park, is just down the road from the museum. Unfortunately, only one cabin remains, and a forest grows where nearly 1500-2000 people lived at its peak. Imagination is an absolute necessity to step outside our limited perspectives, to visualize the homes, clubhouses, restaurants, opera houses, hotels, and gardens, and to consider life as it was lived there in past decades. Tours can help with this as can tactile and interactive elements. For example, visitors going through the museum’s replica mine are invited to take a mining license with the name, occupation, wage, and other relevant information of a real individual. At the end, visitors learn whether their individual survived their shift, emphasizing how dangerous it could be to work underground. After a visit to a museum, dates and names may easily be forgotten but imagination encourages curiosity and hopefully inspires empathy which all have more lasting impacts.
In the coming year, I will be studying in very different cultural contexts, but the potential for exhibits everywhere remains the same. I felt honoured to be offered a brief seat at the table; to listen, learn, and contribute while hopefully remaining true to the incredible work shared and done here.
1 – A Seat at the Table: Chinese Immigration and British Columbia. “Dishes that Bring Us Together” Forewords, 3.
2 – Ibid.
3 – Yu, Henry. “Reckoning and Recognition”. A Seat at the Table: Chinese Immigration and British Columbia, 17.
4 – Fong, Denise. “Passing the Torch”. A Seat at the Table: Chinese Immigration and British Columbia, 61.