An image from the Royal BC Museum’s digitized collection of historical photographs shows an Interior Salish woman and child weaving baskets. The image is one of thousands posted in an online database. (Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

B.C. museum releases more than 16,000 historical photos of Indigenous life

Digitized images preserved and shared with Indigenous communities

Removed from the darkness of large wooden index card drawers, more than 16,000 moments from Indigenous history have been released to the public.

Following a lengthy effort in preservation, the Royal BC Museum has shared the fruits of its digitization labour, posting online historical photographs of B.C.’s Indigenous communities between the late 1800s and 1970s.

With guidance from the museum’s Indigenous Advisory and Advocacy Committee, the process of cataloging and digitizing the photographs started in May 2018 and wrapped up nearly two years later.

With images and index cards scanned, the artifacts resemble postcards, with a picture on the front and text on the back – in some cases containing detailed descriptions of the people, places and objects in the picture – often provided by the family or community members.

An Interior Salish man stares into the camera in one of the digitized images shared by the Royal BC Museum. The public artifacts are intended to help Indigenous community members, researchers and learners. (Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

Frozen mostly in black and white, the images are snapshots of a history too often untold and inaccessible – authentic moments of Indigenous communities, albeit told primarily through the lens of colonial photographers.

The collection is vast, including snapshots of totem poles, architecture, boats and of course, people. A Coast Salish woman weaving in 1915; two Tlingit men launching a canoe onto the Taku River in 1931; A Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation man holding shell rattles while performing at a potlatch in Alert Bay in 1900

READ ALSO: Repatriation efforts work to heal and connect through history: Royal BC Museum

In a statement, Tourism Minister Lisa Beare, says the project is part of a larger commitment to reconciliation.

“Indigenous peoples have a right to images of their communities and their families and through this database can access them no matter where they are in the province,” a statement sent by her ministry reads.

Images can be searched by culture, community or name and the museum says it hopes the artifacts will be valuable for Indigenous community members, researchers and learners. High-resolution copies can be distributed to communities directly, while originals are preserved at the museum in perpetuity.

“Royal BC Museum staff have facilitated private, in-person access by Indigenous community members and researchers to the images, and recognizing the value (and impermanence) of knowledge, for more than 50 years visitors and staff have annotated the back of the index cards with information they feel is relevant,” the museum says.

“Now, with the data digitized and moved online, [the museum] anticipates people will be able to go online from anywhere in the province, type in information like a family member’s name, and download scanned images and other vital information.”

But those searching the system may find some entries without an image. While the committee supported the idea of providing public access to the pictures, it also recommended some remain restricted for legal or cultural reasons.

The committee also recommended a process in which images could be swiftly removed from the online database if they are identified as depicting a sacred event or site or for other reasons of cultural sensitivity.

The database includes a take-down policy and link to an email for the privacy manager to request removal.

To have a look at the digitized images, visit royalbcmuseum.bc.ca, type “pn” into the catalogue number field and press search.

READ ALSO: Museum makes historic Indian Reserve Commission document accessible to public

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
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