‘Objects as Ambassadors’: Representing Nation Through Museum Exhibitions

Part of the One World Archaeology book series (WORLDARCH)


The histories of both the Scottish and the Tlicho Nation in Canada are entwined through the fur trade. The National Museums Scotland (NMS) holds a nineteenth century collection of Tlicho artefacts made by Scots working in Canada. Each nation considers the collection part of its cultural patrimony and heritage. In 2008 when NMS exhibited these artefacts, the individual objects became agents of representation for both nations and their emerging political identities and histories. In discussing the significance of the objects for each nation in the twenty-first century, I examine how two such disparate groups can lay claim to the collection in this way. Through a case study of collecting, interpretations and exhibitions, I will explore artefact agency and the Tlicho perception of ‘objects as ambassadors.’

It is not artefacts that make a nation; but it is the artefacts made by people and for people that speak most clearly of the quality of that people, be they artists or engineers, peasants or poets, artisans or aristocrats

(Magnusson 1989: IX).


This chapter sets out to examine how objects can be agents of representation for individuals and communities, how their use in exhibitions can convey multiple messages of the past and the present and how ‘ownership’ and responsibility can be mutable and shared. In using the example of a partnership forged between National Museums Scotland (NMS) and the Tlicho Nation (also known as the Dogrib) of the Northwest Territories of Canada, it is possible to examine how museums, communities and individuals invest in objects and create lasting legacies and alternative representations of themselves.

The chapter is informed by three central concepts: multiple agencies (the object and the various individuals and institutions who encounter it); the identification of nation and political identity through the political employment and interpretation of objects; and representation of these nations through display. Firstly, an individual’s agency can be read through the material properties and collecting history of an object (Gosden and Knowles 2001). The act of making, the materials chosen and the sale or gift of the object may be visible in the patina, marks and style of the object, and by studying a series of objects, conclusions about this historical past can be drawn (Torrence 2000). Scholars have also described objects as ‘witnesses’ (Phillips 2005: 108), ‘travellers’ (Clifford 1997: 213) that are able to acquire biographical histories. Implicit in these metaphors is the ability of the object to ‘act’ and impart information to others to tell their own stories and thus ‘speak for themselves’. In working with the Tlicho Nation on a series of exhibitions, those mandated to represent the community concerning whether objects should be returned or remain in Scotland state that they were comfortable with Tlicho cultural objects remaining in the Museum and being exhibited there because they would function as ‘ambassadors’ for their Nation. The Tlicho were satisfied even though the placement of their cultural property within a space in the National Museum of Scotland also situated them very firmly in a Scottish national context, inscribing the objects as agents of Scotland’s past and its engagement with the rest of the world.

Forging a Partnership

In September 2002, seven members of the Tlicho Nation visited the National Museums Scotland to view the Tlicho portion of the collection of nineteenth century Dene material housed in the Museum’s collections. Dene is used to refer to the language and cultural group in the sub-Arctic and Northwest Territories region of Canada of which the Tlicho are one group. This was a significant moment. These world-renowned collections, widely published and exhibited (Kerr 1953; Clarke and Idiens 1974; Idiens 1979), were being handled for the first time by the descendants of their makers. Over several days the 37 objects were examined. Responses by the Tlicho oscillated between detailed discussion of the sewing, knotting or manufacturing techniques; the telling of stories about how objects were used; and comfortable silences where individuals enjoyed being in the room with the collection and having them to hand. On one occasion the visitors telephoned their families at home in Canada to tell them that they were in Edinburgh holding, touching and spending time with the objects.

As a consequence of the visit and the individuals’ responses to the collection, a partnership project was established with the aim of exhibiting the collection in the Northwest Territories so that the whole Tlicho and wider Dene community could share access to the collections. National Museums Scotland agreed to work towards an exhibition that would provide an opportunity for ‘knowledge repatriation’ to the Tlicho. In providing a materiality to the lived past and sense of cultural continuity, the objects had sparked and inspired discussion and dialogue amongst those who had visited Scotland and helped unlock oral histories. The goal of the new partnership was to expand this experience to the wider community. An exhibition would provide the originating community with physical access to artefacts by placing them in an accessible space where elders and youth would be able to meet and discuss them. For the Tlicho, in particular, making the collection accessible to those at home would provide material substance to the traditional stories of the land and a physical connection between the makers and their descendants.

In order to take forward the aspirations that this first visit had initiated, a steering committee including representatives of the proposed partner institutions, as well as experts with anthropological, archaeological, curatorial and cultural knowledge, was set up to define project aims and explore possible funding. The steering committee comprised John B. Zoe and Rosa Mantla (Tlicho), Gavin Renwick (University of Dundee), Tom Andrews and Joanne Bird (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, PWNHC), Chantal Knowles (NMS), and Judy Thompson (Canadian Museum of Civilisation). Four years later in October 2006, the exhibition Dè T’a Hoti Ts’eeda: We Live Securely by the Land opened at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, the Territorial Museum in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories of Canada and the region containing the traditional homeland of the Tlicho. The exhibition marked the return of artefacts from the National Museums Scotland’s Dene collections to the Northwest Territories after an absence of over 150 years. Running for a year, the exhibition was subsequently toured to the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa until December 2007. In May 2008, a new temporary exhibition Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada was opened at the National Museum of Scotland. This exhibition comprised the historical Tlicho collections, supplemented by a new twenty-first century collection made during the course of the project.

It was ultimately the decision to display the collection in the National Museum of Scotland, whose founding principle was to ‘present Scotland to the World’ (Fig. 10.1), that provoked a reengagement with the idea of political identity and cultural histories and how this is conveyed through the contents of the collection and the circumstances under which it was assembled. The Museum of Scotland presents Scotland’s story to its international audience, and for the temporary exhibition the endeavours of the Scottish diaspora was a key narrative thread in order to relate the material to the rest of the Museum’s displays. However, by focussing on the Tlicho story in this space we had to be explicit about the relevance of the collection to this nation’s history. The timing of the exhibition was pertinent to this method of interpretation and the stories being told. The successful realisation of the Tlicho’s land and self-government claim in 2005 and the relatively recent devolution of the Scottish government in 1999 and the election of the first Scottish nationalist government in 2007 meant that the themes of national identity, self-determination and history were in the minds of those curating and developing the exhibition and many of the visitors.
Fig. 10.1

This stone is set into the floor at the point at which the visitor can cross between the twentieth century Museum of Scotland and the original Victorian museum which houses world collections of science, natural history and the arts. The phrase can refer to either museum; one presents ‘The World to Scotland,’ while the other ‘Scotland to the World’ (© National Museums Scotland)

Two moments in time – the first, a museum-instigated encounter between the Scots and the Tlicho in the fur trading posts of the Northwest Territories at the time of the collection of the artefacts (1858–1862), and the second, in 2008, when the exhibition opened in the National Museum of Scotland – entangle the stories and histories of both nations. The Scots in Canada were there as part of the fur trade. The Hudson Bay Company (HBC) ships returning from London’s Thames to Canada would routinely stop at the Orkney Islands to recruit labour, building a labour force for the HBC in Canada that by the 1730s was predominantly Scottish (Williams 1983: 25).

In examining two moments of interaction between the Scots and Tlicho, one historical (fur trade) and one recent (partners in exhibitions), I intend to go beyond the textual histories and examine the relationships that the objects embody. The engagement with the present, past, and the institutions of government and museum has enabled a new interpretation of the collection, imbuing it with different meanings and sentiments. This gave the ‘owners’, both Tlicho and Scottish, a new way of interpreting and relating to the collection. The objects, by being placed in a public institution, had been transferred from individual ownership to public property. The right of museums to own cultural property has been widely debated; yet, in this partnership, ownership was defined through the Museums’ role: it holds artefacts in trust for its public. Museum practice places ownership amongst its stakeholders – those who frequent, use the Museum or have an interest or connection to the collections. From this perspective every Tlicho and Scot has a claim to ‘own’ the collection and therefore the right to contribute to discussions regarding its care and interpretation. The plurality of ‘ownership’ allowed for multiple voices and histories to be woven into the interpretation and care of the artefacts.

Material Connections Through Collecting Histories

To consider the formation of the collection in the mid-nineteenth century and the agency of both parties involved, it is necessary to examine their role and vested interest in the transactions of each side: Scots and Tlicho. We can use details of the formation of the collection to get to the heart of indigenous agency in shaping it, the fur trader in assembling it and museum practice in interpreting it. By examining the documentation held by the Museum, comprising lists and correspondence, it is difficult to address the agency of those indigenous owners who offered the items for sale. Yet through understanding the performative relationship that prescribed certain activities in the trade room of the fort or trading post, there is the opportunity to propose some ideas about the shaping of the collection by the indigenous traders at that time. Observations made by modern Tlicho about the workmanship of their ancestors and choice of materials provide useful insights into the makers’ agency when responding to the request for artefacts.

The fur trade in Canada began in the seventeenth century on the east coast and expanded westwards as new regions were opened up to the opportunistic French and British companies. Seeking lucrative beaver fur for the European market, trading companies explored different mechanisms of engagement with the indigenous population in order to increase their access to furs. This settled into a pattern of manned trading posts or forts in key strategic areas. Indigenous trappers could visit the forts run by European men known as ‘Factors’ and exchange or sell furs in return for money or trade goods (Williams 1983: 26–34). The initial contact trading relationships between the Hudson’s Bay Company and Dene groups began towards the end of the eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century the most remote of the Dene groups were involved in the fur trade and had contact with at least one trading post (Helm 2000: 26–27). It was in these trading posts, where many Scots worked, that the Tlicho collection of artefacts was assembled for the Museum.

The relationships between company men and the indigenous population at the forts could be quite formal using a prescribed language and set of protocols. Economic transactions would follow a particular choreography. The pricing of furs was regulated, and all pricing was related to the value of one beaver pelt. Groups of indigenous trappers would come to the post and camp about one day’s journey away. From there they sent someone forward to trade. A formal exchange of gifts took place, cementing alliances and reaffirming relationships (Ray 1974: 65). This was a political relationship; the trading room was purposefully unheated, discouraging any prolonged interaction. But over the years, knowledge and trust built between Hudson Bay Company men and the local trappers.

The trading fort’s main economic transactions with indigenous trappers were based on the acquisition of fur pelts, and these were exchanged for money and goods such as blankets, guns and food. Thus, a request for artefacts will have been additional to, and distinct from, this providing a new opportunity for trade and broadening the range of items that indigenous communities could offer for sale and therefore increasing their potential for economic gain (Lindsay 1993: xv). Source communities were eager to engage in the sale of artefacts, and this could have been due to not only the widening opportunities for economic gain provided by the request for artefacts but also the lack of rules pertaining to these transactions. In this case prices were potentially negotiable, providing greater opportunities to barter, distinct from the regulated trade of pelts and trade goods.

Artefacts are neither agents in their own right nor are they passive. Rather they are entwined in social interaction (Gosden and Knowles 2001: 22). Canadian fur trading posts were the locales where social relations were formed and maintained through the exchange of objects. Their relationship can be glimpsed over a century later through the presence of the object in a museum. During this time the object has become the locus for a set of stories, a life history, which connects makers, owners, interpreters and others and can be used to elicit local agency at certain moments in time, such as the initial transaction, or at the point of interpretation in a museum context.

In the case of the traded Tlicho artefacts it seems that at the moment of transaction, both maker and collector were satisfied with the outcome. Consequently, modern Tlicho feel the objects were ‘fairly traded.’ The museum collection can therefore be researched to illuminate the entangled, mutually dependent relationship between two communities. The notion of unequal relationships and unjust acquisitions, which underpins many colonial collections, seems to be absent from this collection.

Examination of the Tlicho collection shows that many artefacts collected by Bernard Rogan Ross, the Chief Trader at Fort Simpson and the main source for the Tlicho material, were new and unused (this is not true of all the NMS Dene and Inuvialiut collections). This suggests that these artefacts were deliberately made and offered for sale, or directly commissioned from the maker. In addition the collection acquired from the Tlicho contains several small-scale models of items one assumes were too large, unwieldy and costly to ship back to Scotland. They include a pair of snowshoes and several hunting bags in miniaturised form (Fig. 10.2). These were specific commissions, not just taken from a wish list of representative items as compiled by Ross or an opportune acquisition based on something already on offer, but instead a specific request to a selected individual that resulted in a special relationship between maker and collector. This collection is founded on long-term relationships where artefacts were made specifically for sale, or commissioned with specific instructions such as dimensions for the models, or items in stages of manufacture to demonstrate technical process.
Fig. 10.2

Model snowshoes. Snowshoes are made to measure, their length made roughly to the shoulder height of the owner. This model pair measure 592 mm in length (© National Museums Scotland)

Ross was forming a collection in response to a call for material from George Wilson, Director of the new Industrial Museum of Scotland. In his annual report Wilson stated: ‘An industrial museum … cannot be complete without illustrations of the existing state of the useful arts, among the … nations of the world’ (Wilson 1857: 166). His anticipated museum audience and those attending his lectures included many artisans: practical people who made things. Therefore, Wilson was driven to seek out collections from other cultures to form a ‘library of techniques’.

Wilson’s strategy was to use existing networks, in particular the Scottish diaspora that encompassed the globe through colonial, trading, missionary and explorative enterprises. This network of influential friends became agents for the Museum, encouraging the donation or acquisition of artefacts. Amongst these agents was Wilson’s brother Daniel, a professor at the University of Toronto, who put him in touch with George Simpson, a Scotsman and governor of the Hudson Bay Company. A letter requesting specimens and outlining specific collecting criteria was endorsed by Simpson who passed it on to a number of HBC men working at the forts or trading posts (George Simpson to George Barnston, letter, 4 May 1857, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, B.239/c/10, fo.237d). The collecting guidelines encouraged not only the collection of the everyday but also artefacts in the process of being made providing the process of production, its tools and techniques.

Ross amassed his collection, encouraging other traders and missionaries to contribute and commissioning the Tlicho to fulfil Wilson’s collecting agenda. Although there was a list and methodology supplied by Wilson to guide collecting, it is likely that opportunity as well as design formulated the collection’s contents. In reviewing the collection in the twenty-first century the overwhelming sense is one of personal, everyday objects that were offered for trade at posts, but not necessarily the best examples of their maker’s work. Today several Tlicho seamstresses have commented on the poor quality of the hide used to make two summer outfits in the collection, and there is a general consensus that what was offered for trade was inferior in quality to those made for use by the Tlicho. In reviewing the collection and the objects it comprises, we can glimpse the negotiation and personal agency of some of those involved. For example, Tlicho seamstresses clearly believe this was a clever way of trading, making money, but keeping back the best hides for family use. It is difficult to assess whether this was the case; it may have been that less successful trappers turned to the artefact trade to have access to trading posts goods. The lack of quality of materials may also suggest that the collector was not as knowledgeable about certain indigenous artefacts as others. For example, stone pipes and snowshoes were bought on a regular basis by trading post staff for personal use; therefore, they would be better placed to critically assess their quality before buying them for the collection.

Reframing Tlicho Agency

The moment of collection presents the object as a locus for a network of relationships that crosses Canada and the Atlantic. The journey from land to trading post along trading routes to the Museum creates a series of ties that binds the two communities or nations across time and space. Significant aspects of their histories and cultural biographies may be said to be bound into this network.

A reconsideration of the moment of collection and the relationships between the Tlicho and Scots leads us to examine how the objects have been interpreted for the twenty-first century audiences, whether by museum visitor or Tlicho elder. The two partners, Tlicho Nation and the National Museum, approached their communities differently through the interpretation used in the exhibitions and consequently sought differing responses and outcomes from their audiences. Both parties brought their own invested interest and sense of ownership to the artefacts and aims for the exhibitions, so that the objects themselves became agents of representation for the two nations.

Today the Tlicho Nation, consisting of a population of just over 3000, is settled in four communities across the area known as the North Slave region. In 2005, ten years after the claim was filed and five years after an agreement in principle, the Tlicho won their land claim and right to self-government. In the context of the land claim and the research being carried out within the Tlicho communities, ‘traditional knowledge’ in the form of oral histories was gathered and recorded. This provided a mechanism to map traditional land use and knowledge of the land to substantiate the historical basis for the land claim.

Early on in this process, Tom Andrews (territorial archaeologist) and John B. Zoe (chief negotiator, Dogrib Treaty 11 Council) elicited a story from an elder, Harry Simpson (interview between Chantal Knowles and John B. Zoe, 15 May, 2008). They learnt that their informant’s grandfather had been a keen trader, travelling widely, trapping fur and making or seeking out other desirable goods to trade at the forts. Amongst these goods were stone pipes, a carved stone version of pottery pipes manufactured in Europe at that time. Through further discussion with the elder a location for the source of the stone was determined. The following summer an ethno-archaeological survey was conducted in the area, and two sites with the remains of pipe manufacture were identified. On their return from the field Andrews and Zoe sought historical examples of the trade pipes in museums; their researches brought them to the National Museums Scotland (Fig. 10.3).
Fig. 10.3

Stone pipes in various stages of manufacture (© National Museums Scotland)

The impetus behind reconnecting with these artefacts has a broader context. This tracking of oral histories across the land opened the story book of the Tlicho, which they believe is inscribed on the land and their relationship with it. Reopening this storybook led to the institution of the Trails of our Ancestors, an annual trip involving youth and elders that followed old travelling routes (Zoe 2005). This in turn prompted the formulation of the Traditional Knowledge Project (Legat 2005), the collecting of oral histories, all of which reinforced a generational continuity of land use and knowledge of the land by the Tlicho. This confidence in their association with their land, its centrality to their way of life and life itself meant that the process of the land claim fed off and into this knowledge.

After uncovering the existence of the stone pipes and the larger Tlicho collection in NMS and as a consequence of the visit to the Museum by elders in 2002, NMS curatorial and conservation staff began a series of visits to the Northwest Territories from 2004 on (Fig. 10.4). These visits provided face-to-face opportunities to discuss the practicalities of a touring exhibition, potential means of funding and to work with the elders to research the collection and select objects for the exhibition. Images of the objects were shared with elders, and each object provided the doorway to a material memory for the elders. This allowed them to reconnect with their stories. The objects provide a physical link to the past and their ancestors. In addition to the personal connection of elders to their ancestors, the objects provided a material marker, or reference, for the Tlicho community to their land. An intimate knowledge of the land and the language gives the Tlicho their identity and sense of self. Objects are inextricably linked to the land by the materials from which they are made and their use in the landscape. This reference point, as potent as the markers on the land, connected things in the past with stories and people existing in the present.
Fig. 10.4

Chantal Knowles uses photographs to discuss the National Museum’s collection with elders of the Gameti community during an initial visit to Canada, May 2004 (© Gavin Renwick)

Whilst the continuity with certain objects had been lost, in that they were no longer made or techniques had changed considerably, the memories they evoked and their connection to the land and its stories remained. Each exquisite object, crafted from the land, affirms the link with the landscape. Amongst the objects that elicited one of the most emotional responses was the largely unassuming willow bark fishing net (Fig. 10.5). These nets stopped being made a long time ago, so few people remembered seeing one, although everyone had heard about them. Large nets, owned by family groups, were placed under the ice in winter, providing access to vital food in a season of scarcity. Many different elders talked of family stories describing how a family’s survival had depended on nourishment provided through the net’s catch. What was an unassuming object for the Museum, difficult to conserve and harder still to unravel and examine in detail, was not only something that resonated for the Tlicho to a past nomadic life, at times harsh and uncertain, but also something made from the land, made collectively and owned collectively. It represented community and collaboration, winter camps and the knowledge and skills needed to live on the land.
Fig. 10.5

Fishing net, willow bark fibre. This net would have to have been kept wet at all times to remain pliable and flexible for use (© National Museums Scotland)

Tlicho connection to land and use of the objects as a way to recreate the past were critical in how they used the objects within the context of a museum exhibition. As we have seen, the modern Tlicho are a confident, self-assured and thriving nation. Their recent successes in winning their land claim and right for self-government have given them a secure base from which to engage with the world. For the Tlicho the land is their life. The title of the Canadian leg of the exhibition Dè T’a Hoti Ts’eeda: We live securely by the land is explicit (Andrews 2006). Without the land there is no life, and without knowledge and the ability to read the land, its stories and its memories of the past, present and future, the Tlicho will lose their culture, their sense of who they are and their way of life.

In the Yellowknife exhibition, interpretation was minimal. Each case had two labels, the first a personal quote or story from a member of the Dene community to whom the object related and a descriptive label for anyone unfamiliar with the object. In addition, two panel texts, discreetly placed along one wall of the exhibition told the story of the collection’s assembly and its journey to Scotland and the other the Dene and Tlicho history. Back in their source community the objects were framed as being of the land and having come ‘home’, yet the inclusion of a panel about Scotland hinted at the collection’s other ‘identity’, a collection with meaning for the Scottish nation.

Unprecedented numbers of visitors came to the exhibition. The Yellowknife population is 18,000, and the visitor numbers for the exhibition reached 30,000. Although these figures include tourists, there were many repeat visitors. A visitor’s book gradually filled with comments often not about the exhibition but the objects themselves. ‘It was my culture’ wrote one; ‘I was moved, it was a spiritual experience. These Dene items are still very alive with Dene culture. Mahsi Cho [thank you] to our ancestors,’ wrote another; and ‘Good to see our culture preserved for the rest of the world to see’. Many of the comments were therefore about identity and pride, pride in the work of their ancestors, pride in the nation today and pride in the fact that their objects were respected internationally. Each visitor attributed the objects with their own sets of meaning and a new narrative or contemporary agency. The objects had become ambassadors for the nation and symbols of cultural identity, working to give the people a presence and identity on the world stage. This world stage was realised during the special exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh: Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada.

Nation Building in the Museum

The Tlicho collection has not only participated in nation building among the Tilcho themselves in modern Canada but, surprisingly, has also played a similar role in Scotland, both at the time of its original collection and later in the twenty-first century. In the 1850s, when the Scottish National Museum was amassing a national collection, it wanted to represent Scotland and its relationship with the rest of the world, comparing and learning from other industries around the world. In the claustrophobic life at the HBC trading posts, this was an opportunity for individuals to think of home and make their mark at home, a lasting testimony of their work and life abroad. The Scottish fur traders’ response to Wilson’s request was patriotic and generous. The material arrived in the Museum in a series of consignments between 1858 and 1862. In total around 240 documented items relating to Dene communities of the northwest and around 180 Inuit artefacts, largely from the Inuvialuit communities from the Mackenzie River area, were deposited at the Museum. One of the collectors, Robert Campbell, wrote ‘…whatever could be procured in this country for the National Museum of Scotland – I am sure that Scotchmen in general in whatever clime they be, will feel it both a pleasure, and honor, to respond to the call’ (Robert Campbell to George Wilson, letter, 5 May 1859, Hudson Bay Company Collections supplementary file, Department of World Cultures, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh).

The Industrial Museum of Scotland, founded in 1854 and opened in 1866, was extended in 1999 by the addition of a whole new building, the Museum of Scotland. Distinct from the Victorian establishment, which contained natural history collections, science and technology, arts and ethnography from around the globe, it was built with the intention to tell the story of Scotland from its geological beginnings through to the twentieth century. To use the temporary exhibition space in the Museum of Scotland to bring a different nation’s story to the Edinburgh public during festival time was a departure for the Museum. As the Museum provides a destination for many international visitors, the displayed collection (which now included the Tlicho’s published land claims documents) had to provide the Scottish context for the collection and address Scottish engagement with the Tlicho in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, in order that visitors could understand its location in the heart of the Museum of Scotland. Underlying some of the discussion at steering group level between the Scottish curators and the Tlicho representatives was the politics of the countries or nations that were involved. The two dominant partners, the National Museums Scotland, which held the collection, and the Tlicho, whose ancestors had made the collection, both claimed the collection as part of their cultural history or to use a Zoe’s words as their ‘storybook’.

In order to understand the contemporary usage of the term ‘nation’ by the two participating communities, it is necessary to look at how the terms emerged in relation to the two populations. For the Canadian First Nations, of which the Tlicho Nation is just one, the term ‘nation’ was largely interchangeable with ‘tribe’ for many years. However, in 1975 the Dene Declaration was published, a document that requested the world to recognise the Indigenous Dene as a stateless nation that had a claim on Canada and the right to land. From this moment on the word ‘nation’ gained ground and became current terminology for describing indigenous communities in Canada (Flanagan 1985: 368). For most the idea of nation, or cultural identity, is predicated on notions of difference between the nation and the ‘Other’. Whilst the Tlicho are a stateless nation that can define itself in opposition to the Canadian nation, for Scots the history is different. Once a sovereign state, it is now a stateless nation, defining itself in opposition to other ‘nations,’ in particular the English. There are resonances between the two communities and their recent political histories, but this does not bring the communities together, make them similar or mean that the artefacts stories would be the same for both sides.

For the Tlicho the objects in the collection are physical manifestations of the history of their engagement with and on the land, embodied by the materials and knowledge with which they were crafted. For the Scots the collection is material evidence of their or Scotland’s engagement with the world and their adventurous and enduring spirit. Of particular significance is that the collection comes from Canada, a country where the largest proportion of the Scottish diaspora resides currently.

‘Museums negotiate and construct meanings of national identity’ (McLean 1998: 244) and not necessarily just their own. In the case of the Tlicho exhibition, the National Museum of Scotland was empowered to tell the story of the Tlicho Nation, something that the Tlicho expected their objects would also do: standing as testament to who they were and who they are today. Representing the Other and ourselves is part of the Museum’s role. The way in which we do this is influenced by the cultural and political agendas of the moment. The Tlicho and the Scots both have very specific perspectives on their histories, given their current political and cultural climates.

McLean’s research amongst the visiting public to the newly opened Museum of Scotland found that many see the Museum as an ‘ambassador’ for Scotland presenting a positive image of Scotland’s culture and history to the rest of the world (2003: 121). The use of the word ‘ambassador’ amongst the visiting public in discussing the role of the Museum and the series of stories it conveys echoes Zoe’s assurance that the Museum’s display of Tlicho objects created ambassadors for his community. This ambassadorial role, played out before an international audience of visitors, whether attributed to objects or the Museum, imbues the space and its contents with an agency that goes beyond the written interpretation compiled by the curator and museum staff. The structure, placement and politics of the museum enhance the influence of the narratives that are written into the exhibition interpretation, providing material evidence or even material influence over the visitor. It shapes their visit and the messages they take home. For Zoe the objects provide the evidence that the Tlicho exist as a nation and community then and now, to an audience that would otherwise have no reason to know of them.


The notion of the ‘objects as ambassadors’ for the Tlicho Nation is a compelling one. Exploring this metaphor is an important part of understanding the partnership process, the project’s perceived success and the contemporary Tlicho approach to artefacts and their long-term care and display in Scotland. The artefacts were representatives of the Tlicho Nation abroad, and although consulted on the interpretation used in the Scottish exhibition, Zoe and others were willing to let the knowledgeable museum personnel guide the interpretation. The Museum chose to create an exhibition that historically contextualised the Tlicho, placing them in their landscape, environment and culture, and touched upon Scottish links to the community and how the collection came to be so far away from its source community. A final section looked at the political emergence of the Tlicho Nation, their land claim and their recent history and how this had brought the Museum and Tlicho back into contact and created a new collecting opportunity.

Contemporary objects of Tlicho manufacture, including clothing and bags as well as documents and flags that related directly to the land claim and emergence of a nation, were dispersed throughout the exhibition. This additional material, accessioned to the collections of the Museum, was only exhibited at the Scottish venue. The juxtaposition of modern artefacts, such as the bags used to store and keep fresh dried meat, alongside historical ones demonstrated continuity of materials and techniques. The representation of Tlicho history and continuity provided the clear message that the Tlicho have always lived on their land, continue to live on their land and will remain on their land. They adapt to changing times, whether political change or physical changes to the landscape through mineral resource exploitation, but maintain their identity through the inalienable association with the land and the messages or lessons it contains.

This narrative, presented in the exhibition, was supplemented by direct quotes from the Tlicho, both past and present providing opportunities for the stories, both historical and modern to come through. Zoe clearly believed the objects could and should ‘speak for themselves,’ imbuing them with a contemporary agency. In describing the stone pipes as his favourite objects, he noted:

…the most important object to me is the stone pipe … it represents the landscape and the skill of the people in recognising the type of stones they used, the artwork that went into developing it, the time and patience that it must have taken and the knowledge that had been passed on to the artist in putting it together. …It is made out of some soft stone material that is a piece of the landscape and it has a stem that is made from a plant that grew out from the landscape as well as the babiche that comes from the animal from the landscape so it has all the elements of the landscape, the vegetation and the animals … all put into one… (Interview between Chantal Knowles and John B. Zoe, 15 May, 2008).

In the context of the here and now of Tlicho history, the stone pipe can be seen as the summation of what it is to be Tlicho, who they are and their enduring relationship with the land. Yet the same stone pipe also represents Scotland’s past, the thirst for knowledge and understanding that prompted the foundation of a museum and informed its early collecting strategy, and the economic opportunities that took Scots abroad.


Museum artefacts have a past and a present, in the same way as do the two nations that claim ownership of them. The nations also have a past and a present that are bound together by the objects. Over 150 years ago the relationship was deemed unequal with Scots being part of the appropriation of land and its exploitation for commercial gain. Today both nations meet over common causes since they find themselves at a point where ownership and the right to self-government are crucial issues. These common concerns created a connection whose presence was periodically felt throughout the recent partnership in creating exhibitions. These were ‘nations working together’ to address our past and access the knowledge locked within a set of artefacts. The exhibition in Scotland, situated in the Museum of Scotland, a monument to one nation’s culture, provided a different take on Scots’ past relationships with other cultures and a moment for reflection on them. The exhibition gave the Tlicho an international platform for recognition (artefacts as diplomats or ambassadors). Working together has provided a new, more equal relationship where co-curation, co-care and responsibility are acknowledged and hopefully will continue to thrive.

Just as nations can be associated through the connectivity of the objects and the networks created by the transactions, embracing those connections and reawakening dormant ties have resulted in a reinvigorated collection with new multiple layers of meaning being attributed to the museum artefact and perhaps getting us closer to a sense of the agency of the actors and artefacts, both then and now. This case study shows how museums collections have multiple agencies since each party associated with the collection has imbued the objects with agency and their own sets of meaning. It is up to the museum to unlock these meanings allowing the visitor to engage with objects.



The exhibition and associated activities were the culmination of five years of work in partnership with the PWNHC, NMS, the Tlicho Government (formerly the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council) and the University of Dundee. It involved many different people, and all are thanked for their hard work and support. The members of the Steering Committee were vital to the success of the exhibition in both venues, in particular, Gavin Renwick, Tom Andrews and John B. Zoe. This chapter also draws upon research work relating to the Museum’s collection and history, in particular discussions with Henrietta Lidchi, Geoff Swinney and Charles Stable. For insight into ideas of Scottish identity, nationhood and the Scots colonial endeavours I am grateful to John Burnett. Jane Wilkinson, Kylie Moloney, Alison Morrison-Low and Jeremy Coote have commented on earlier drafts. I am extremely grateful to the organisers of the session at WAC, Robin Torrence, Rodney Harrison, Sarah Byrne, and Annie Clarke for their help and encouragement in the development of the chapter and in particular Robin Torrence for her encouragement and editorial skills.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of World CulturesNational Museums ScotlandEdinburghScotland

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