Meet the Glenbow Museum’s first director of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation

December 10, 2021
Meet the Glenbow Museum's first director of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum now has a director of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation, and she says stepping into the role is humbling and critical for the museum industry.

Amber Shilling is Anishnaabe, from Mnjikaning First Nation in Ontario, on her father’s side. She was born and grew up in Treaty 7 territory before completing her PhD at the University of British Columbia in 2020.

There, she focused on how urban Indigenous youth utilize technology to engage with culture and language.

Now, Shilling has returned to Calgary for the newly created role at the Glenbow — where she used to take field trips as a child — to help the museum reimagine what it means to engage respectfully with Indigenous communities.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to have such a critical role, I think, in the reimagining of what the Glenbow can be within Calgary,” Shilling said.

“But also what it means to reconcile with the whole museum industry.”

Engagement and understanding

The Glenbow closed its doors for three years starting at the end of August as major renovations started on the building, and welcomed public feedback on the project.

Part of that process involved consulting with Indigenous communities in Treaty 7 territory and across the country.

In August, Melanie Kjorlien, the museum’s chief operating officer and vice-president of engagement, said the Glenbow wanted to ensure that communities whose culture is represented in its collections were actively involved.

And Shilling says this engagement helps foster an understanding of the complex relationship Indigenous communities have with museums.

They were developed with a colonial mindset, that “white gaze,” she says, and display artifacts that have not been repatriated. 

“Roles such as these are desperately needed within the entire galleries, libraries, archives, museums,” Shilling said. 

“We really need to be mindful of Indigenous people having that self-determination and that right to tell our own story, to say what we need to say — in an appropriate way, in a respectful way.”

A visitor here

Shilling grew up in and around Calgary, and attended high school in nearby Strathmore. But she is ever-mindful, she says, that she is a visitor here. 

“I am an Indigenous woman but … this is not my traditional territory. There are traditional keepers of this land,” Shilling said.

Those keepers include the Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda and Métis Region 3.

Tarra Wright Many Chief is a consultant with the Glenbow Museum. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

For Shilling, this means her role with the museum — and reimagining its relationship with Indigenous communities — will start collaboratively.

Rather than jumping in with hard ideas or a set agenda, the goal is to make Indigenous people feel respected, excited and engaged, she said.

“The first thing for me is to reintroduce myself, to build the new relationships — but also to reinvigorate the relationships that I have with the people around here,” Shilling said.

“And I need to hear … from community members what feels right to them.”

Tarra Wright Many Chief, a consultant with the museum, says she is looking forward to Shilling’s inclusive approach.

“It’s going to be a really amazing thing to see all those different communities, with their diverse interests and how they’re utilizing the museum, come together,” she said.

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