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LETTER: Cancel culture not needed at The Exploration Place


According to Robyn Curtis (PG Daily News 11 May 2021) the problems of Exploration Place go back to its origins. Like all museums, it was started by “elite men.” These men were racists.

Saying that men were the creators of museums doesn’t tell us much. Most civic institutions, through all time and across all cultures, were started by elite men. History tells us that Nebuchadnezzar, in 6th century BC Babylon, collected antiquities (they were curated, though, by a woman). Augustus Caesar and Cosimo de Medici put statues and art on public display. The “great men” of the Coast Salish built homes that displayed their wealth in the form of carvings, paintings, totems and tributes from adjacent tribes. Joseph Brant built a whole city for the Mohawks, and that city has a museum named after him that shows his stuff.

I suppose it could be said that Exploration Place was created, like a lot of local mills and businesses, and like CNC and UNBC, by elite men. Their pictures can be seen on the walls of the institutions they built. Along with the men, now, you’ll find some elite women, but this too fits. A few elite women have always been in the game. Catherine the Great started the State Hermitage Museum in Petersburg, Yael Nitzan started the Israeli Woman’s Museum in Jerusalem, and more locally, Polly Sargent started ‘Ksan Village, a very similar facility to Exploration Place, in Hazleton.

But Curtis wants museums to be “created by men.” Why? Because men, unlike women, are colonizers, or racists, and the biggest problem with Exploration Place is racism. Certainly, the men mentioned above were racists. They all kept slaves. A Coast Salish chief could have a couple of hundred of them — most acquired in the course of war. Brant purchased black slaves. The elite men of Exploration Place couldn’t be said to own slaves, exactly, but Curtis might affirm, from a feministic and Marxist perspective, maybe, that they enslaved women and workers.

This would be stretching it, of course, but a further stretch is Curtis’s idea that these men were housing “curious items from their travels.” Sometimes these curious items were “stolen,” and sometimes “misrepresented.” The museums of Nebuchadnezzar and Caesar are said to have contained artifacts from all over their empires, across which they doubtless travelled, stealing things as they went. But some artifacts were specific to Babylon and Rome. Of misrepresentation we can’t be sure, but it’s likely.

The loopy, somewhat contrived nature of Curtis’s history of museums indicates an agenda that has now become very familiar: the agenda of the counter-culture movement. Her history is a sort of virtue-signalling that starts the chase. Elite men = bad. Creations of elite men = racist, sexist, colonialist, no matter how good their intentions (and Curtis acknowledges that some meant well). Those creations cannot be celebrated or kept in circulation.

Curtis isn’t going to cancel Exploration Place; those elite men did have a good idea when they created museums. But she is going to root the racism out of her organization. She describes her plans for doing so.

First, the museum cannot simply be “not racist;” it “must be anti-racist in order to effect change on a societal level.” It must seek out and condemn or disappear the racism in its displays, not just provide more of the perspective of the colonized to balance the perspective of the colonizer: “The entire museum industry must move into the future with redesigned best practices that de-center the colonialist view and instead look through the lens of colonized communities.” Note the “instead” rather than “also.”

She provides a specific example of doing this: “the Latin species names in The Exploration Place’s galleries have been replaced with Dakelh terms.” Note the “replaced with,” not “supplemented by.”

This is supposed to teach history? It may make some feel good, but it also a lie. Elite European men like Isaac Newton long ago agreed on Latin nomenclature for science. It took hold with all ethnicities and genders of scientists because European science was on a roll and European colonialism at its height, and because it proved efficient. Science moved on. There are no hard feelings about this, so far as I know. Latin works for all. Dakelh doesn’t, and neither does English or any other living language.

An analogy. The numeral system used by the Romans was inefficient, so those elite-man scientists appropriated a truly functional system from the Persians and Egyptians. Then, moving on again, they appropriated zero from the Maya. Any cultural baggage accompanying these moves was shed. No quadratic equation begins by acknowledging its appropriation of the unceded numerology of the Persians and Egyptians, or the unceded zero of the Maya.

Dakelh should be present as well as Latin, so visitors of all cultures are aware that every vernacular in the world has names for species, Dakelh right up there with all the rest, but that Latin is the language in which science proceeds, and that Latin nomenclature is what you will have to learn if you study biology.

This sort of cancel-culture attitude makes me fear for the other displays in the museum. It’s counterproductive. Cancelling Dr. Suess because you believe he is a pederast, has two results. First, you don’t get to read his books, which are great. Second, you’ve taken one small step in eliminating the presence of a racist, which is a step in proving racists don’t exist. That’s a lie.

Curtis should keep her cancel-culture politics out of Exploration Place. Museums are around to present and not condemn or redact historical documents and figures. All cultures are human. To pretend that some are more virtuous than others, that our generation is more virtuous than all preceding ones, is to falsify history.

John Harris

Prince George

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