The Royal BC Museum is doubling the size of its Indigenous collections and repatriation team after preliminary results of an investigation into racism shows that things are “bad,” says board chair Dan Muzyka.
In July 2020, the museum, located in Victoria on Songhees and Xwsepsum territory was rocked by the departure of Lucy Bell when she resigned from her position as head of the Indigenous collections and repatriation department, citing workplace racism according to reporting from the Globe and Mail.
Her departure spurred an investigation by the BC Public Service Agency and an internal investigation, results for both of which are pending, but early indicators of the internal process aren’t looking good, Muzyka says.
“I would say that the results (of the investigation) in a number of areas, you know, are bad, and there are a couple of areas that we really need to address,” he says.
The Royal BC Museum, which seeks to educate visitors about the natural and human history of the province, houses many collections, including items that belong to First Nations across the province.
According to the museum’s handbook on repatriation, starting in the 1880s many Indigenous collection items at museums were either stolen or purchased under duress by colonizers and archaeologists who believed Indigenous people were going extinct and were thus collecting items and desecrating graves “as they pleased.”
Since the 1990s the museum has been working to return or repatriate cultural objects and human remains to First Nations.
Allegations spur investigations
Bell “spoke her truth” about her experiences at the museum during a farewell speech to her colleagues, says Muzyka – who was watching a livestream of the event due to COVID-19.
“It was very, very difficult to hear,” he says.
Muzyka declined to say what Bell’s accusations were, however the Globe and Mail has reported that Bell said she had been subjected to “outright discrimination,” and “micro-aggressions that happen here every day” from colleagues and museum executives. As an example, she told the Globe that a museum colleague once claimed, “It’s proven science that Natives can’t tolerate alcohol.”
While the internal investigation is being conducted by an outside consultant hired by the institution, the publicly funded museum is also subject to a government investigation by the BC Public Service Agency and results have not yet been released.
“We’re fully prepared to take whatever action is required to address any issues that come out of the [government] investigation,” Muzyka says.
Following media reports of Bell’s resignation, the First Nations Leadership Council released a statement asking that the results of the investigation be released in a “timely” manner and lauded Bell for speaking out.
“We strongly commend Ms. Bell for raising the alarms of the systemic racism occurring within the walls of the RBCM by highlighting her own experiences,” reads the Jan. 25 statement.
Expanding the Indigenous collections and repatriation department
In response to preliminary findings from the museum’s own investigation, Muzyka says the museum is taking action on several levels, including expanding the Indigenous collections department.
“[We are putting] additional resources in our Indigneous collections and repatriation department,” he says.
The museum plans to hire eight new people to join the current team of six. One of those positions is the repatriation specialist, which became vacant after Lou-ann Neel was promoted to department head upon Bell’s resignation.
IndigiNews reached out to Neel but she declined an interview request and says she will wait for investigations to be completed before speaking on the challenges and changes at the museum.
Communications staff say by email that the museum is also planning on hiring for seven other positions, a mix of roles that either haven’t existed before, or were temporary positions that are now permanent. These tentatively include a director of Indigenous partnerships, a department administrator, an Inigenous audio-visual collections manager and a modernization and cultural advisor, writes museum communications staff.
Three people will also be hired to support decolonization and interdisciplinary work and will be embedded with the museum’s modern history, archives and botany collections, they write.
The director of Indigenous partnerships will sit on the museum’s executive committee, which is the “top management forum of the museum,” Muzyka says.
Other changes at the museum include policy changes to make it easier for people to report racism or discrimination, and comprehensive diversity and inclusion training for staff at all levels.
An internal task force made up of staff, managers and executives will create a new discrimination reporting policy to make it clear “exactly where to go, who to talk to, how that process is going to unfold for them and how they can feel and remain safe in that process,” Muzyka says.
Furthermore, these changes at the museum will be “done through facilitated sessions with an Indigenous change management expert,” which the museum is currently seeking to hire, Muzyka says.
Being accountable to First Nations in terms of anti-racism work and the repatriation of sacred and cultural objects is a high priority, he says.
“We want to make sure that we enhance the resources that are available for repatriation,” Muzyka says.
“This is a continuous process, we’re going to be monitoring it … to make sure that the culture changes — that are important to the organization, but also the community — are made.”
Editors Note: A previous version of this story named a museum communications staff member as the spokesperson, when that is not accurate to their role.