J'net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth

Sheelth: we need a lot more colour in our museums

Geraldine Kendall, 09.10.2014
International professionals on how museums are making a difference across the world
Delegates at the Museums Association (MA) conference in Cardiff heard today how museums overseas are echoing the ideals of Museums Change Lives in their own practice.

In a session entitled The world is more plural than we think, outreach and learning coordinator J’net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth, who is the first indigenous full-time member of staff that the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada has employed in its 100-year history, described how she viewed her work as a mission to "thaw out colonised minds”, saying the museum could empower people by reshaping the thinking of both colonisers and indigenous peoples.

The advantages work both ways, she said, describing how museums can be transformed by engaging with the “living cultures” of indigenous communities.

“Indigenous folk who are linked to education can challenge people’s notions of how history played out,” she said. “It’s about not just looking at the world in the past tense.”

“We need a lot more colour in our museums to represent a lot more diversity.”

Antonio Vieira, the director of the Museu da Maré in Brazil, which is situated at the heart of a favela in Rio de Janeiro, praised the MA’s Museums Change Lives document, saying it was an inspiring vision for museums that could translate worldwide.

He said: “'Museums change lives' is a principle that I believe in very seriously and I’ve given my life to make it a reality. I believe that no one coming into a museum will come out the same way.”

Vieira described how, on a limited budget, the Museum da Maré had given its local community a sense of place and transformed the image of the favela. “We want to break away from the perception that the favela is a poor place and can’t build its own memory,” he said.

He called on museums to reach out to their own communities in the same way, saying: “Organisations need to be humanised. Museums should not be afraid of their public or see them only as a number, they should see the public as a partner that can help them exist.”

“If we don’t come out of our castles, museums are going to become great tombs,” he added.

Chair David Anderson, who is the president of the MA, said looking to international work could be a vital way of rethinking practice in Europe in the face of funding cuts.

He said: “As funding is declining in many countries across Europe, museums are being challenged to find new models for working and rethink some of the fundamentals of their practice.

“There is great diversity in museum practice across the world; this diversity is an enormous resource for us as we strive to find models that can work.”

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