Last Thursday afternoon, when I was not wandering downtown Calgary trying to soak in the atmosphere, most of my time was spent at the Glenbow Museum. I have heard of the Glenbow for years, but that was my first visit. I found the museum disappointing, mainly because it spread itself too thin with its exhibits.
I suppose that a diversity of exhibits is a wise move for attracting the public. However, you can immediately see the problem I am talking about simply by listing the exhibits and permanent displays that the museum was hosting when I was there. It includes “Modernist Art from the Glenbow Collection;” “Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia;” “Treasures of the Mineral World;” “Warriors: A Global Journey Through Five Centuries;” “Kent Monkman: The Triumph of Mischief;” “The Nude in Canadian Art, 1920-1950;” “Where Symbols Meet: A Celebration of West African Achievement;” “Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta;” “The Blackfoot Gallery;” “The Four Directions Gallery” (an overview of four First Nations cultures), and a exhibit of five Blackfoot shirts taken to England in the 19th Century.
Possibly, I have missed a few. Even so, most of these are enormously large topics, and to reduce them to a single gallery cannot possibly do them justice, no matter how well-meaning or intense the effort. The Modernist and Warrior exhibits especially suffered from too large a scope. Usually, the exhibits that seemed most successful to me were those with limited scopes, such as the Nudes exhibit, although perhaps I might have felt that such exhibits suffered same superficiality if I had known more about their subjects.
However, my disappointment was greatest with the First Nations exhibits, which I had especially wanted to see.
The Four Directions Gallery, with its attempt to do cross-cultural comparisons of First Nations group, seemed especially prone to superficiality. Canadian First Nations share a similar experience in relation to the European settlement, but, otherwise, they are so divergent that comparing them makes far less sense than comparing, say, French and Polish culture.
In the case of the Northwest Coast, which I know best, the gallery gave no indication of the unrivaled richness of the cultures. To make matters worse, it emphasized Kwakwaka’wakw artifacts, almost entirely ignoring the three other major cultural groupings of the coast – an organizing principle that seems to have been applied for convenience rather than because it is a natural one.
Yet, even so, granted that the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Inuit both have drums and canoes, are the associations of these artifacts the same in both cultures? The Four Directions Gallery gives visitors no way of knowing, and, given the size of the room, the cultural comparison attempted can only seem lacking.
By far the strongest exhibit is The Blackfoot Gallery. However, it, too, suffers problems – although different ones from the rest of the museum. On one level, the Blackfoot Gallery was a well-meaning attempt to give a sympathetic portrayal of a First Nations culture by working with its descendants. Yet, even so, the exhibit persisted in dividing words in Nitsitapiisinni (Blackfoot) into syllables separated by hyphens, a 19th Century habit that has the effect of making the language seem simple and childish.
Another problem was that having modern Blackfoot organize the exhibit often gave the impression of propaganda, emphasizing those points that modern industrial culture could find admirable and glossing over less attractive subjects.
This impression was especially strong in the seating area where Nitsitapiisinni values were listed. Naturally, all the values were admirable ones, and I was left feeling that I had encountered the Noble Savage myth in modern, mutated form.
Perhaps such propaganda is necessary to counter the negative impressions that persisted in the 20th Century and continue in the media today, but I would much rather have a warts and all portrait of the culture than an exalted or a debased one. The First Nations of the Northwest Coast do not seem reluctant to admit that their ancestors, for all their achievements, were rigidly stratified and dealt in slaves, and I can only hope that the Nitsitapiisinni can achieve the same balance someday in talking about their own past. Meanwhile, the attitude weakened what was otherwise a genuinely informative exhibit.
Even with these deficiencies, the Glenbow Museum is mentally stimulating, and I will certainly return the next time I am in Calgary. Yet I went away wondering if the need to appeal to modern sensibilities inevitably means that museums have to be superficial and leave those wanting deeper information unsatisfied.
I don’t think so. Despite its faults, the Blackfoot Gallery has moments of real depth that could be a model for the rest of the Glenbow. But, too often, the impression I took away was that education was taking a distant second place to entertainment.