March 19, Prince Rupert, British Columbia – The Museum of Northern British Columbia is prolonging a dispute over the carving shed, an artist’s work space on museum grounds, by refusing to negotiate, says Tsimshian master carver Henry Green. In fact, the attitudes of curator Susan Marsden and the museum directors has outraged local First Nations residents to such a degree that some are talking about reclaiming artifacts currently held by the museum.
The behavior of museum officials may also be in violation of British Columbia human rights, labour, and commercial tenancy statutes.
Over the thirty-nine years of its existence, the carving shed has provided work space for many prominent First Nations artists. However, in the last year, relations between the artists using the shed and the museum have deteriorated, due to a concerted attempt by the museum to exert greater control. A carved sign directing visitors to the carving shed was confiscated by the museum and not returned for eight months, a phone was removed from the shed, and members of Green’s family have been harassed and barred by Marsden and her staff.
Once, when the locks on the shed were changed without warning, Green was forced to wait four hours to retrieve his personal belongings, including his unique set of carving tools. “During this time I was berated and talked down to,” Green says.
Matters came to a head in late January, when the museum gave the carvers one week to vacate the premises, despite the fact that moving several large carvings was impossible on such short notice. The museum claimed that it wished to renovate the dilapidated carving shed, although no plans had been filed at Prince Rupert city hall. Museum officials also claimed they wished to use the shed as a teaching tool for local students, although Green and other users of the shed have taught and given demonstrations for years.
Museum employee Sampson Bryant implies that another motive was to collect rent from those using the shed. However, since the shed is owned by the City of Prince Rupert, the museum’s right to rent the space is questionable. Even if that right is upheld, the behavior of museum officials may violate commercial tenancy law in British Columbia.
Green and other artists have repeatedly requested to talk to museum officials, but with little success, since meetings of the museum’s board of directors are not publicized — nor, for that matter the names of the directors.
A meeting brokered by Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussalem and John Helin, an official representative of the allied Tsimshian tribes, broke down when Wes Baker, chairman of the museum board, refused to cooperate or compromise. Mussalem did promise to find alternate work space for the artists, but, meanwhile, the museum has insisted that the artist vacate — before the time in which the city had promised to find accommodation, and before the board meeting at which the artists have finally been given time to discuss the situation before the board.
“This behavior is completely against the spirit with which users of the shed and museum officials have always interacted,” Green says. “We have never had an official arrangement, but the relationship has always been to the benefit of everyone. The museum gives artists a place to work, and the artists attract tourists to the museum.”
A separate web page for the carving shed that includes a photo of Green (http://www.museumofnorthernbc.com/pages/06carving/06index.html) suggests that, until recently, the museum shared this attitude.
Also at issue is the question of whether the museum is guilty of violating labour laws and human rights statutes. Section B5 of the Ethics Guidelines of the Canadian Museums’ Association states that museum workers are defined as “individuals responsible for any aspect of museum operation….paid or volunteer,…occasional or contract,” as well as “privately or self employed persons practicing one of the related museological fields.” In other words, if the museum has control over the carving shed, then it has certain obligations to the artists, and could be guilty of wrongful termination and dismissal without cause as defined under B.C. labour law.
While these events have unfolded, support for the carvers has quickly spread, thanks largely to a Facebook group called “Expression, not Oppression” started by Morgan Green, Henry Green’s daughter and apprentice. The group now has almost a thousand members, including such prominent First Nations artists as Lyle Campbell and Ya’Ya; local Tsimshians, and art lovers from across the country.
The group has been used by Bryant to denounce and threaten Green and the other artists. However, most members of the Facebook group have expressed the conviction that the behavior of museum officials shows a disrespect for local First Nations, particularly in the treatment of a prominent artist like Henry Green.
“I am quite disgusted with the Museum for their lack of cooperation in this matter,” Breena Bolton writes. “[They are] all adults, yet they have to hide information, and try portray the artists in such a negative manner.”
Similarly, Christine Parnell writes, “I think that the museum has to remember it is our Artifacts that bring in the money to that museum. I think if they continue to not only disrespect the carvers but our Allied Tribes voice that we, as Tsimshians should look at repatriating our artifacts back to their rightful owners.”
In response to the situation, supporters of the artists have scheduled a peaceful protest at the carving shed today at noon in order to express support for the artists.
“I don’t know why the situation had to come to this,” Green says. “Carvers in the shed have had differences with the museum before, but they were resolved by discussion and negotiation. But, for some reason, now museum officials have a win-at-all-costs mentality. They seem to have forgotten that the museum’s mandate is to form respectful relationships with the Tsimshian nation.”