Behind the exhibits: second-year history student tells Indigenous stories through well-curated galleries
What goes into creating the hundred word plaques you read at a museum? Second-year History student, Isaiah Wiltzen, found out there is a lot more to it than you might first think.
Isaiah belongs to the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation. He moved from Nova Scotia to the small town of Fort Smith, NWT (population 2,500) with his family when he was in the fourth grade, his father having deep roots in the area.
During the summer break, Isaiah interned at the local museum in Fort Smith. Despite its size and isolation — the nearest community is a three-hour drive away — Fort Smith’s museum, the Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre, houses the largest collection of traditional First Nations and Métis artifacts in the Northwest Territories and is lauded as a top collection of “northern native and early white settlement artifacts in Canada.”
Toward the end of August, the museum lost its curator amidst plans to renovate its lower galleries. Isaiah asked the museum manager how he might be able to help move the project forward. Soon after, he and two other employees were tasked with curating the exhibit from an initial concept to a professional final product.
With an extensive collection of artifacts containing everything from ancient arrowheads and bows, to Qulliq — traditional oil-based heaters — there was plenty of material to work with, but a narrative was required to bring it together. Isaiah and his team landed on developing an exhibit conveying indigenous relationship with the land in the early European contact era.
The exhibit, entitled “The Land Provides,” contains a wide variety of stories and artifacts from the Dené, Métis, and Inuvialuit peoples — three groups who have historically called the Thebacha region (northern Alberta and southern NWT) home. The themes of the exhibit cover the techniques developed in response to the challenges of hunting and gathering.
Wiltzen shares one of the more interesting strategies he came across in the course of his extensive research:
In early winter, when black bears began their hibernation, Dené hunters would find a bear cave and quietly hide at the exit while others made as much noise as possible. When the startled bear emerged from its den, hunters would jump down on top of it, armed with stone clubs.
“I can’t imagine how terrifying that would be,” he laughs.
With full creative freedom came a deep-felt responsibility to get things right. Wiltzen and his peers spent endless hours poring over available literature and source material. Wiltzen credits the work he’s done in his first years of his history program with preparing him to research properly and write effectively.
“I’ve learned what actually goes into an exhibit. You don’t realize the amount of work that goes into each detail. I have way more appreciation for how galleries are created and the people behind them.”