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Posts Tagged ‘Museum of Northern BC’

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.”

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For some reason, writers in late middle age feel compelled to denigrate Facebook. The Globe and Mail seems particularly insistent, and hardly a week goes by without at least one of its columnists going on at length about how shallow Facebook friendships are or how trivial the quizzes and games often are. I’ve always thought that such rants are part of the general complaint that the world has changed since the late middle-aged were young; although I agree that Facebook is superficial, I’ve found it a useful way to maintain some business and hobby contacts. But, recently, I have had direct experience of another reason to appreciate Facebook: as an organizing tool for social action.

My newfound appreciation started at the end of January, when I stopped by the Edzerza Gallery while on a wander to celebrate having finished my work for the month. There, I struck up a conversation with carver Morgan Green, who told me about the trouble she and her father and the rest of his apprentices were having over their use of the carving shed at the Museum of Northern British Columbia.
After listening, I spoke fifteen fateful words: “Why don’t you start a Facebook group? Facebook has got to be good for something.”

That night, Morgan started the group “Expression not oppression” and issued invitations to all her Facebook friends to join. Within twenty-four hours, the group had two hundred members. It now has over 900 members, including prominent Northwest Coast artists such as Lyle Campbell, Ron Telek, and Ya’ Ya, and has become the focus for the discontent that many among the northern first nations feel about the museum and its curator and for the lack of respect that even prominent native artists sometimes face from the dominant culture and its bureaucracy.

Looking at what has happened, I like to joke that now I know what the pebble feels like when it starts the avalanche.

Even that, of course, is too much credit for me to claim. Apart from a few emails of support and my previous blog entry on the subject, I have really done very little, and nothing somebody else might not have been done. The truth is, the success of the group has everything to do with the carvers involved and their friends and family, and next to nothing to do with me. And that’s how it should be; I’m more than content to be part of the supporting crowd and leave the speaking roles to more suitable people.

However, because I was a bit of a catalyst, I have been following the growth of the group more than I might have done otherwise. And it strikes me that any tool that can help organize a community as quickly as Facebook did has more value than you might expect. Ninety-nine percept of everything that happens on Facebook may be shallow, but observing the “Expression not oppression” group has convinced me that the remaining one percent is powerful and more than enough to justify the rest of the activity.

Really, the late middle-agers have got hold of the wrong perspective – instead of insisting on the triviality of Facebook, they should be having a closer look at how it can be used to organize people. To me, any tool that has such a positive effect deserves to be taken seriously, not dismissed because it’s new and different.

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Over the years, the Museum of Northern British Columbia has gained a reputation for working with the local First Nations in Prince Rupert. But now, unless appearances deceive, museum officials seem willing to throw away that reputation just so curator Susan Marsden can flex her muscles in her ongoing struggle to assert her authority over Tsimshian master carver Henry Green and his apprentices. The conflict is being fought over the carving shed, a popular attraction where Green and the other carvers have been working, but what’s really at stake is the consistent disrespect shown by the museum and city officials.

According to the chronology provided by Green on Facebook, the carving shed has been in existence since 1980. While hardly a comfortable place – it has no washrooms, running water, nor working furnace — in the last twenty-nine years, it has been a workspace for many of the biggest names in Northwest Coast art, including Alvin Adkins, Edward Bryant, Heber Reece, Lyle Campbell – and, of course, Green himself, who has worked there on and off since it was built.

The carving shed has not always co-existed peacefully with the museum, being a place where artists came and went without ever being employees or having much regard for museum hours. But, when relations were uneasy between the museum and the carving shed in 1993, Green says, communication helped to reduce the tensions on both sides. Mostly, the shed has continued to be an important attraction despite minimal promotion by the museum.

However, since last summer, relations between the museum and the current crop of carvers have steadily worsened. The phone was removed, amidst allegations that it was being used for long distance calls, a claim that Green denies. Then the locks were changed, including the ones on Green’s private storage. Green says that he had to wait four hours to get into the shed to get his tools, and that “during this time I was berated and talked down to.”

In another episode last summer, the artists erected a carving sign directing tourists to the carving shed. When Green’s partner and his daughter investigated, they found the sign locked away by the museum, on the grounds that private signs could not be put on museum property. Not only has the sign not been returned, but, as a result of the incident, Jennifer Davidson, Green’s partner, was banned from the carving shed by Susan Marsden, while Morgan Green was told that she would have to apologize before she could return. Marsden’s claim is apparently that Morgan Green kicked and swore at her – charges that Morgan denies.

Matters came to a head in January, when all the carvers were given one week to vacate the shed. Considering the number of carvings in the shed, including some two meter poles, this is a next to impossible demand. The artists requested at least a month to vacate. Meanwhile, they are worried that their tools, many of which are highly specialized and specifically created by them or for them, will be confiscated by the museum.

The carvers have tried to talk to the museum’s board of directors, but all they have heard is secondhand accounts that the shed will be renovated, then assigned to groups for specific projects. The implication seems to be that the current group of carvers will not be among them. Moreover, since it is February and no permit for renovations appears to have been taken out, the carvers are more than a little skeptical of the claim.

The situation remained unpublicized until Morgan Green started a FaceBook group called “Expression Not Oppression” four days ago. Since then, over four hundred people have joined the group, including many local first nations people and art-lovers.
Prince Rupert mayor Jack Mussalem insists that supporters have heard only one side of the story. However, when he phoned to give it to me, he demonstrated no understanding of what upset both the carvers and their supporters (who include me).

Nobody is questioning the right of Marsden to evict the carvers, not even the carvers themselves. But what bothers people is the disrespect. If what I have heard about Marsden’s behavior is even remotely true, she seems to have abandoned common courtesy.

Even worse, Marsden, Mussalem and other officials of the museum and Prince Rupert seem to be acting with a total disregard for the sensitivities of the first nations. Considering the history of the last century and a half, many among the first nations are understandably sensitive about anything that suggests the arbitrary abuses of power, particularly by people of European descent. And when you add the fact that first nations artists are leading figures in preserving the cultures, insults directed to an internationally-known figure like Henry Green are easily seen as insults to the community itself. You can see these attitudes being expressed in the comments in the Facebook group.

Art-lovers and collectors feel much the same way. Witnessing a conflict between artists whose main desire is to continue working undisturbed and empire-building bureaucrats, you want to guess with whom they’ll side?

Possibly, there are mitigating circumstances that would explain the behavior of officials. Yet, if so, they have not bothered to explain those circumstances. Instead, they have simply asserted their right to act as they have chosen, and refused to address the question of their behavior.

Very likely, they can get their way in the short run. However, in the long run, their petty victory in what seems no more than a bureaucratic turf war threatens to be won at the expense of all the good will from the first nations that the museum has built up over the years. And, if that happens, the museum could take decades to regain that good will – assuming that it ever does.

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