Designing for Specific Audiences: Working with Indigenous Cultures

Bianca Message

Today, many museums want to include more indigenous content and want to work with First Nations communities to help tell the story of the indigenous cultures in their local area.

Though well-meaning, many local history museum efforts are either tokenism or simply fail. The result often ends up with the First Nation’s story being told by non-First Nations people, an approach which can rarely be authentic. Every community and situation is different and there is no one way, no one-size-fits-all, no patented approach that institutions can follow when working with First Nations communities in a museum development project.

My goal with this article is to share a few points from my years of experience that may be helpful to exhibition designers and institutions desiring to work with indigenous communities.

Building trust takes time and effort

If possible, meet the community members you are working with on their own ground—their offices, their homes, their meetings, and, if they invite you, their activities and ceremonies. Remember you are their guest and behave as such. It’s also important to understand that you may never completely earn their trust, so approach your relationship from a place of humility and compassion.

In my work, I often suggest the appointment of a tribal liaison, an individual from the culture you are working with who is connected in the community, or very secondly an indigenous consultant from another community. Try to ensure that all communication be channelled to and through this individual. He or she is the consensus gatherer for the community and its decisions and all information back and forth should go through this person. Understand that this role holds a massive responsibility and can be a huge burden on the individual.

When listening to speakers and attending ceremonies be respectful. When someone is speaking don’t look at your phone! I don’t even have mine turned on. Remember, it is a privilege and honour to be in attendance. Sit still, listen and observe, and don’t talk. Follow the etiquette of those around you. Be prepared to spend time absorbing what is going on around you.

A different world view

It’s also important to demonstrate your respect for different spiritual beliefs and world views. For example, in some cultures artefacts hold the spirit of the person who created them. Objects may be treated as beings and the thought of wearing white gloves while handling them may be offensive.

Prayer may be part of the introduction or conclusion to meetings. In most cases prayer is a natural part of the agenda. If you are facilitating a meeting you might suggest to the appropriate person from the community if they would be willing to start the meeting with a prayer.

For a good meeting, be patient

Introductions and clear purpose in meetings are important. Each person must have the opportunity to introduce themselves. Typically, this includes an indigenous name and an English name, followed by what they do in the community. Ask each person in the room to do this and what they would like out of the meeting, or out of the exhibit you are developing with them. This will be your guide throughout the project.

The community input and feedback must be your guide. It is critical to record meetings as invaluable resources to return to over and over again and to track the evolution of the project and the decisions made. This can be done simply in written notes, or audio or video if permitted. These records must be returned at the end of the project to become part of their tribal archives. Make sure you follow through and return everything to them as it is, after all, their property.

At the beginning of each meeting it is important to recap, confirm what they told you, and build on it. In my experience it is best not to present something that does not build directly on where the last meeting left off. You are in the privileged position of prompting people to speak and share. Build on what you have already asked and then, in each meeting, recap and confirm what they said in the last meeting and get their affirmation that you have recorded it, and understood/interpreted it correctly. I encourage you to recap and check for accuracy every step of the way through the whole process from concept to fabrication.

Community and focus group meetings work best with food and gifts. Don’t come ready to take. You are asking for something — provide something tangible in return. A gift is a sign of honour and respect.

Be patient and wait. Questions and responses are worth waiting for. We are used to rapid back and forth communication usually in short bursts. Remember silence is eloquent and thoughts and opinions take time to form and be shaped into meaningful statements. Understand that the community is taking time and showing patience by trying to teach you their stories so you can share them with the public.

Last, be quiet. I strive to listen openly with all my being, to put my own beliefs and ideas aside, and be patient. It’s key to understand that ceremonies and meetings will take time.

Acknowledge and respect voice

It is important to realize this may be the only opportunity for a community to tell their stories, for themselves, their future generations and the public.

They are experts in their own history and will share what they deem necessary with you. You are an expert in your field. Share your expertise with them. You need to draw out their story (verbally and physically). Sometimes in writing with post-it notes, sometimes in community with presentations, sometimes in group workshops with a designated spokesperson. Know your role and affirm to them that you understand theirs.

Use their words, their language, their way of speaking. Seek to break stereotypes. In my experience, some communities prepare their content and text using their own tribal PhD text writers, while others use a less academic, more personal way of writing. Use what is most appropriate depending on the community.

Give youth an opportunity to share what is important to them, using painting, sculpture, video—anything. Have the courage to present their sometimes edgy and raw viewpoints in your institution.

Remember design is born of story

When developing an exhibition, the emotional and physical pacing of the story is critical. The story is often emotionally harrowing and as designers we need to respect the fact that visitors need time to absorb what they have just experienced. Design places of contemplation between the horror and the healing. I am forever grateful to Bonnie Ekdahl from the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways for her patience in teaching me this truth.

Ensure you create a strong design to celebrate their victories. For example, for the Ziibiwing Cultural Center, we created a parade made up of Anishinabe individuals who had fought for sovereignty since the 1900s — The Sovereignty Parade. Each mannequin reflects the features of a significant person representative of each decade. During the opening ceremonies tobacco offerings were placed at the feet of these figures as well as on the rock form we had created as a replica of one of their sacred places. This was unexpected, and healing, for tribal visitors and veterans, and the director, Bonnie Ekdahl, said we needed a proper place for offerings to be given. Together we found a perfect place near the beginning and end of the visitor experience and simply placed a table, covered with a blanket, and a bowl for people to place their offering and say their prayers. It continues to be a place of healing for those who visit.

Always focus on what is unique to the community. One particular community we worked with are, horse people. Their horses live all around them and run free. Thus inspired, we “set the horses free” in the exhibits. We created horse sculptures that looked natural, as though you came upon them just set loose in the gallery.

Being open to change as the design unfolds, from small changes to the quite dramatic, there are opportunities to enhance or expand the impact of an exhibition.

Be flexible

Allow for life and milestone events when you plan your exhibition development schedule. Births, deaths, ceremonies, celebrations, cultural and sports events, seasonal events such as hunting, fishing, berry picking, and root digging and other societal activities must be accommodated and investigated for possible incorporation into the storyline.

Always have a back-up plan for site visits in case no one is available. Once we were on site for a film shoot and when we arrived we learned that there had been a death the night before. The whole village was in mourning. We respected that, changed our plans and shot some b-roll instead.

Of course, accountability is critical. I encourage you to try to have weekly calls and deliverables to review, comment on or approve. You need to deliver something, and the community does too. Don’t be discouraged when meetings slide, but at least try.

Above all, we need to be willing to learn, it is a privilege.

Lonetree, A. (2012). Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Alexie, S. (2009). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Hachette Brown Group.

This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, July/August issue, 2018