[ISEA2020] Keynote: Dylan Robinson — shxwelí li te shxwelítemelh xíts’etáwtxw / The Incarceration of Indigenous Life by Museums

Across the globe, museums filled with glass and plexiglass vitrines display collections of Indigenous belongings. The typical display scenario for such belongings places them upon plinths, underneath a plexiglass. These cases render the life they contain into objects of display, things to be seen but not touched. For Indigenous people, experiencing this objectifying system of display is often traumatic because that which is on display fits neither category of object nor thing; they hold life, and are beings or ancestors. They are treated as kin. Alongside the life of ancestors who take material form, thousands of Indigenous songs collected by ethnographers on wax cylinder recordings and reel-to-reel tape are similarly confined in museum collections. These songs also hold life, but of different kinds from their material cousins. To re-assess the role of the museum as a place that confines life is to put into question its relationship to incarceration. If the museum is a carceral space, how then, might we define repatriation alongside practices of “re-entry” and kinship reconnection? To what extent might we also apply the discourse of prison abolition to the museum?

  • Dylan Robinson is a xwélmexw (Stó:lō/Skwah) artist and writer, and the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s University. His monograph, Hungry Listening (Minnesota University Press, 2020), considers listening from both Indigenous and settler colonial perspectives, and proposes decolonial practices of attention that emerge from increased awareness of our listening positionality. Dr. Robinson’s current research focuses on artistic practices of reconnection between Indigenous songs and members of communities who were prohibited by law to sing them as part of the Canadian Government’s Indian Act from 1882‒1951. His previous publications include the co-edited volumes Music and Modernity Among Indigenous Peoples of North America (2018) and Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action in and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2016). queensu.ca/llcu/people/faculty/dylan-robinson