THEMUSEUM: Taking the lead on Reconciliation

Ever since rebranding itself in 2010, downtown Kitchener’s THEMUSEUM has touted itself as a place for meaningful conversation and an organization that embraces difficult conversations.

Last month, the cultural hub walked the talk.

THEMUSEUM hosted A Cause for Celebration?: A Reconciliation Dialogue on July 12, 2017. It was an event designed to continue the conversation on reconciliation, reflection, and resistance after the giant Canadian flag on the front of their building was vandalized.

#WeRally2021 to #UnSettling150

But let’s back up a bit. In February, Waterloo Region was in the running to host the Canada Summer Games in 2021. There was a pretty significant campaign to get support from the community, and as part of the that, there was a rally outside THEMUSEUM on February 28. And because it was also Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, they decided to hang up a four-storey tall Canadian flag on the front of the building to recognize both causes. It quickly became a defining visual feature of the area.

“We thought it would be cool to do that (for Canada’s 150th),” said David Marskell, CEO of THEMUSEUM.

Eventually, Niagara Region was selected for the 2021 games, and the #WeRally2021 movement came to end. But with Canada Day just a few months away, the Canadian flag stayed up. And as the country’s sesquicentennial drew closer, national conversations about #Canada150 and #Unsettling150 shined the spotlight on the giant flag once again.

“It was a pretty big target for somebody who’s not celebrating Canada’s 150 who has not been treated so well over the past 150 years,” said Marskell.

By the time Canada Day rolled around, that pent-up frustration and perhaps even anger boiled over. When Marskell showed up at THEMUSEUM on July 1st, he saw that the flag had been vandalized.

 Photo:  CBC

Photo: CBC

“We were having a swearing-in ceremony for new Canadians and as I came to work that morning, I looked up and I saw a banner that said, ‘150 years of Resistance #UnSettling150,'” he said. “It was sort of over top of the maple leaf and there was black paint or ink or something spread down the flag.”

“My first instinct was, considering the exhibit we had with a Cause for Celebration, let’s put the banner in that exhibit,” he said.

So that’s exactly what they did, and it still resides in the exhibit as of the writing of this article. The following Monday, a reporter from a local news outlet noticed the black ink still on the flag and asked Marskell about it. He was honest of course, and that soon spawned a frenzy of media coverage of the incident across the country.

“I started getting social media messages, emails and so on with some very angry comments about how vandalism is vandalism. And I had other voices saying, ‘What do you expect when you put a flag and a target like that up,'” he said.

“It occurred to me very quickly that we need to have an event (to have a dialogue about this) where we bring those voices together. We have to do that. We need to hear each other and acknowledge one another and that’s the only way to get to truth and reconciliation.”

Opportunity for Conversation

The idea for an event to have a dialogue about the flag protest came together pretty quickly and THEMUSEUM went about planning it in a very purposeful and meaningful way. On the day of the Reconciliation Dialogue, they arranged the chairs in a circle, not unlike how an Indigenous medicine circle might be arranged.

They sent out invitations to the event to anybody who had sent them a message by email or on social media. Attendance was free with a suggested donation of $10, with all proceeds going towards the Woodland Cultural Centre’s Save the Evidence campaign.

THEMUSEUM also reached out to the Waterloo Region Police Service (WRPS), who sent a representative to the event.

“The whole thing really resonated with people and I’m just delighted we could be a stage for that dialogue,” said Marskell. “We’re all about ideas transcending objects and having discussions and dialogue.”

When it was all said and done, about 55 people showed up, the vast majority of who identified as Indigenous or were sympathetic to that side of the conversation.

One of the most common themes from the evening was the idea that the banner that was initially hung from the flag in front of the building should be put back up as it was. Ultimately, that likely won’t ever happen, but it certainly is an idea that was and is worth exploring in some sense.

The evening was moderated by Mike Tennant, a broadcaster and producer at CBC Radio. He said he enjoyed being able to listen and take in a variety of opinions.

“It really was a rich experience to be in here and just let people talk and express different views,” he said. “I was also really impressed by how much listening went on in the room. I don’t think anyone really came here to make speeches and that was really refreshing.”

Kelly Davis, an Indigenous educator who is heavily involved in the local community, attended the event after seeing it on social media. She said the dialogue was exactly what should be happening right now.

“It’s uncomfortable and that uncomfortableness is what makes change because people are going to start to inform themselves,” she said. “(Change) is not going to be easy, and it will be painful, but we can do it if we want to.”

Conversation –> Action

Since the event, THEMUSEUM has been an active advocate on social media for Indigenous issues and education.

Marskell said he hopes to see this conversation continue and for people to be informed about this dialogue.

“I hope those who couldn’t make it to the dialogue event come to the exhibit and see the words of our 23 prime ministers… and see how they were treating the Aboriginal community,” he said. “I think it’s really important for this community to see that.”

Davis also emphasized the importance of education, particularly for children and younger audiences.

“They have to know why we’re in the state we’re in,” she said. “They have to be informed.”

“Education is a very powerful (thing).”

As for the idea of putting the banner back up, both Marskell and Davis noted that it’s a good idea but that it might not be necessary.

“If somebody vandalized my home, I’m certainly not going to wave it off either,” said Davis. “If (something like this) happened at my home, I would clean it up too.

“The message is there, the discussions are happening.”

Marskell said the way he and his organization reacted is what their organization is all about.

“To us, THEMUSEUM is a place where sometimes we provoke dialogue but definitely we run to a tough discussion, we don’t run away from it.”

“I’m not pleased with what happened and I don’t condone that, but I am happy that it sparked a conversation and it has allowed us to be the stage for that conversation.”

Marskell actually attended the Reconciliation Dialogue in-person where he fielded questions from the audience and provided the organization’s perspective in the discussion. After the event, he released a statement on THEMUSEUM’s Facebook page providing his own thoughts on the evening’s conversation and the next steps for the institution. You can read that statement for yourself here.


What do you think? How do you think THEMUSEUM handled this situation? Let us know in the comments below or tag us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram!