Removed from the darkness of large wooden index card drawers, more than 16,000 moments from Indigenous history have been released to the public.
Following a lengthy effort in preservation, the Royal BC Museum has shared the fruits of its digitization labour, posting online historical photographs of B.C.’s Indigenous communities between the late 1800s and 1970s.
With guidance from the museum’s Indigenous Advisory and Advocacy Committee (IAAC), the process of cataloging and digitizing the photographs started in May 2018 and wrapped up nearly two years later. With images and index cards scanned, the artifacts resemble postcards, with a picture on the front and text on the back – in some cases containing detailed descriptions of the people, places and objects in the picture – often provided by the family or community members.
|An Interior Salish man stares into the camera in one of the digitized images shared by the Royal BC Museum. The public artifacts are intended to help Indigenous community members, researchers and learners. (Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)|
Frozen mostly in black and white, the images are snapshots of a history too often untold and inaccessible – authentic moments of Indigenous communities, albeit told primarily through the lens of colonial photographers.
The collection is vast, including snapshots of totem poles, architecture, boats and of course, people. A Coast Salish woman weaving in 1915; two Tlingit men launching a canoe onto the Taku River in 1931; A Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation man holding shell rattles while performing at a potlatch in Alert Bay in 1900.
In a statement, Lisa Beare, minister of tourism, arts and culture, says the project is part of a larger commitment to reconciliation.
“Indigenous peoples have a right to images of their communities and their families and through this database can access them no matter where they are in the province,” she said. “I appreciate the repatriation department for leading this important work.”
Images can be searched by culture, community or name and the museum says it hopes the artifacts will be valuable for Indigenous community members, researchers and learners. High-resolution copies can be distributed to communities directly, while originals are preserved at the museum in perpetuity.
“Royal BC Museum staff have facilitated private, in-person access by Indigenous community members and researchers to the images, and recognizing the value (and impermanence) of knowledge, for more than 50 years visitors and staff have annotated the back of the index cards with information they feel is relevant,” the museum says. “Now, with the data digitized and moved online, [the museum] anticipates people will be able to go online from anywhere in the province, type in information like a family member’s name, and download scanned images and other vital information.”
But those searching the system may find some entries without an image. While the IACC supported the idea of providing public access to the pictures, it also recommended some remain restricted for legal or cultural reasons. The IACC also recommended a process in which images could be swiftly removed from the online database if they are identified as depicting a sacred event or site or for other reasons of cultural sensitivity.
The database includes a take-down policy and link to an email for the privacy manager to request removal.
To have a look at the digitized images, visit royalbcmuseum.bc.ca, type “pn” into the catalogue number field and press search.
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