Master of Fine Arts (Glass) Thesis: Issues of Identity in Canadian Post-colonial Culture Examined through the Practice, via Roots Pilgrimages, of Collecting and Curating Relics into Modern Day Cabinets of Curiosity


“… by travelling to Scotland [to study] … it was kind of a reverse colonial pilgrimage.”

(Gray text, 2015)


In my experience and through study, I’ve found that descendants of colonial immigrants – in this paper, specifically Canadians of Scottish ancestry – often experience crises of identity brought on by:  the feeling of being rooted elsewhere, guilt through the historical taking of First Nations people’s land and mistreating of those people, and nostalgia for a past, romanticised ancestral heritage.  William New, writing about the modern commonwealth, says that “searching for the national identity is a kind of congenital art form in Canada” (New 1975: 101).  It seems to be bred in the bone, driving some, in their yearnings, to go on “roots pilgrimage” trips (opportunities to collect experiences) to their ancestral homes to make meaningful connections.  In these journeys, they often choose, keep, and later display collections of souvenir “relics” which help to solidify, in themselves, their identity and place in the world.

Using a variety of research methods, this paper will outline issues of identity in a post-colonial culture examined through the practice, via roots pilgrimages, of collecting/curating relics into modern day cabinets of curiosity, showing how feelings of a more firm establishment of heritage-based roots have been achieved by this action.

Research methods used for this paper include literature/film/lecture reviews, site visits, mind-mapping, and, as a summing up of the overall thesis, a case study.  A visual breakdown in the form of a mind-map shows what events have influenced me as a Canadian of Scottish ancestry to lead up to the point of studying roots pilgrimage collections (see Figure 1).

mind map Figure 1

Figure 1:    Mind Map: Progressions

It is important that key terms be defined for this paper, especially since the idea behind phrases such as “roots pilgrimage” are relatively new [Varricchio 2012].  In this case, new definitions arise because almost one thousand years have passed since the height of religious pilgrimages in the Middle Ages [Freeman 2011] and so modern terminology can and should be applied if new definitions in relation to ‘pilgrimage’ or ‘relics’ are to be used.  [Gray Pilgrimages 2015: 3].  In all, the terms used include post-colonialism, home/place, identity, pilgrimage, relics, collecting, and cabinets-of-curiosity.


Colonialism can be defined as the “acquisition of full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically” [Oxford University Press 2014].  The British colonization of Canada occurred roughly beginning at the start of the 17th century, not easing off until the late 19th century.  It is necessary to know this in order to understand Canadian “post-colonialism” specifically.

Howard Doughty, in Canadian Post-colonialism:  Recovering British Roots, says the origins of “post-colonial” go back to Edward Said’s Orientalism [Doughty 2005], in which Said says the term ‘orientalism’ describes the overall idea of the West ‘dominating, restructuring, and having authority over’ a dominated people [Said 1977: 3].  Studies of post-colonialism generally deal with “relationships between European empires and their former colonies, commonly identified as the victims of imperialism.”  In “settler-invaded cultures” such as Canada, postcolonial methodology is problematic because of the country’s “location within the industrialized West [and] because of its treatment of its aboriginal peoples” [Doughty 2005].

In order to move forward to create a more distinctive Canadian identity away from the British “parental home” [Lower, 1977], Seymour Lipset says it “remains only to rescue Canadian post-colonialism from the past and to remind ourselves that the path to a humane future has already been sketched out” [Lipset 1970: 72].  Though we may need only to recognize and embrace this, for many post-colonial Canadians great importance is placed on the individual search for a distinct identity, so there is much personal “reverse colonial pilgrimage” to determine that [Gray text, 2015].  As to how the past melds with the present, the repercussions of past abuse of aboriginal peoples goes on and will require much reparation to come, as First Nations people have their own distinct but intertwined post-colonial issues.

Home / Place

Pico Iyer, in his TED talk Where Is Home, says that home is “not just the place where you sleep … [but] where you stand” [Iyer 2013], the place you relate to, the place you use to create that “particular history of one’s own” [Bhabha 1994: xx].  Post-colonial Canadians tend to claim “split” identities, seeing ancestral roots in two or more places [Varricchio 2012].  Susan Pearce in her book, Collecting in Contemporary Practice, says that homes are identity cocoons, filled with possessions that give reassurance and stability because of their connections with the past, with “better times” – even supposed or fabricated better times – or with a higher social group [Pearce 1998: 14-15].  The question “where is home” is not always such an easy one for post-colonials to answer.


The Oxford dictionary defines identity as “characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is” [Oxford 2015].  Even though, as Willie Fields says in Artefact Collecting and Native Americans, “there’s a lot of merit to salvaging the physical remains from past cultures” [Fields 1997: 136], Lipset says Canadian identity may stand on something outside of what can be seen with the eye and held with the hand; it may be as simple as “embracing elitist imperial Britain to escape revolutionary America,” a counter-revolutionary emphasis of something not simply British, but “British North American” [Lipset 1970: 72].  This could go some way to helping us understand why Canadians particularly embrace not just a European past, but a strongly British one.

According to Lucille Campey in her book An Unstoppable Force:  The Scottish Exodus to Canada, there are three main reasons why Scots Canadians harken back to their ancestral identities so strongly.  Firstly were the emotional reasons they emigrated, which included:  overcrowding, famine, and increasing poverty.  And “despite a happy ending, this emigration saga is shrouded in a victim culture that is preoccupied mainly with wicked landlords, forced expulsions, and emotional horror stories,” many of which live on today in myth [Campey 2008: 16].  Nostalgia is a strong factor in identity searches, and romanticism and mythology are often the result as people seek to associate their identities with victors.  Secondly, emigrating meant that Scots could maintain their identities, since if they stayed in Britain, they would have to join the “melting pot” working in the lowlands cloth industry [Campey 2008: 28-29].  This pride in a distinct heritage was handed down to descendants.  And, thirdly, an “interest in Highland traditions, encouraged in good measure by Sir Walter Scott’s writing, was rising, as Scotland was seeking a more distinctive national identity” and as this was happening in Scotland, it also happened in Canada [Campey 2008: 198].  A strong tradition of, for instance, Highland Games exists in Canada to this day.

The search for post-colonial identity can take many forms, including on-line genealogy searches, family interviews, cemetery visits, and sometimes, holy pilgrimage-like journeys to locate meaningful identity connections in ancestral heritage.  Relic-like objects are often collected and taken home to display.

Problems exist in associating identity with places outside of a birthplace.  For those seeking Scottish heritage connections, romanticized Scottish ‘clanscapes’ such as battlefields, castle ruins, and abandoned crofts have become sacred places whose names alone summon ‘layered sets of beliefs about heritage and one’s place in the world,’ leaving identity seekers falling into the trap of claiming world views and experiences which may have never actually existed [Beultmann 2012: 179].  Stereotypical images of the Scottish Highlands can mistakenly be thought as representative of the entire nation, causing a landscape that is ‘romanticised, life is portrayed as heroic, the material hardship people experienced in the past played down and conflict between groups and individuals glossed over’ [Varricchio 2012: 196].  Myths are created and then accepted as truth, and this is dangerous for those seeking identity [Gray Pilgrimage 2015: 7].


Pilgrimages have traditionally been associated with medieval journeys to holy places with the goal of viewing church-sanctioned relics.  Such journeys gave personal satisfaction to the pilgrims, who took souvenirs home with them to prove the accomplishment [Angenendt 2011].  In an e-mail on the subject, Craig Martin pointed out that pilgrimage objects are “important markers of journey”, and it is clear that relic souvenirs collected by roots pilgrims are exactly that; ways to note the importance of the various parts of their journeys [Martin 2014].

Roots pilgrimages are journeys to ancestral homes to seek out heritage; often realized in a romanticized or mythologized way in order to make connections that seem honourable.  These, then, are often found in places where diaspora or death has occurred in the name of the honour, or where death is memorialized (cemeteries or battlefields) [Gray NLCG 2015: 4].  Since identity is gently erased over time after death, strengthened connections with those who have gone on before become important.  As I have noted in a case study on North Lands Creative Glass regarding the importance of place, “As I make my own pilgrimages, I am much more cognisant of the effects of place upon my sense of personal identity” [Gray NLCG 2015: 17].


Medieval relics, often parts of bodies of saints, were collected by churches and displayed to pilgrims travelling to them to seek miracles for body and soul.  These were usually “contained in elaborate reliquaries with glass windows to aid viewing the contents … [which] were considered holy themselves in relation to the relics within” [Angenendt 2011: 26].  Where holy relics were once housed in jewelled caskets (see Figure 2), today’s modern roots-related relics are also housed in reliquaries of different sorts:  cabinets, photo albums, or sometimes entire rooms.


Figure 2:  Reliquary Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty (12th century)

                 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

                 (image courtesy of

In early modern times, relics “took the form of collected objects which occupied the same emotional place as relics but attested to the existence of historical events and personages in more general terms” [Pearce 1995: 116] and it has been this emotional place that identity-seekers have wished to locate and relate to.

‘Roots pilgrims’ often yearn to “return to their ancestral homes because of nostalgia” [Boym 2001: xiii], and those trips are similar to holy pilgrimages.  Travellers, therefore, look for relics of their past, seeking ‘holy’ places associated with the lives of their heroes.  Romantic mythology encourages them to make associations with heroes in order to place puzzle pieces missing in their own identities [Beultmann 2012: 179].  Therefore, these souvenir relics, especially of the dead (photos of gravestones, for instance, or battlefields, or statuary; bits of stone or pressed flowers from special locations), are integral; collected and brought home in order to validate the honourable connections [Gray Pilgrimages 2015].

Relics can become heirlooms, making connections with the flow of past, present and future.  “They help to create life histories, attaching us in material form to an unreachable past, making experience concrete and so constructible into a personal narrative which makes transparent what is obscure” [Pearce 1995: 251].


Collecting can be seen as “obsession organized” and nostalgia is often a major driver [Pearce 1998: 2, 52].  It can be considered a form of “journaling”, as collecting can help debrief the effect of experience [vanManen 1990: 73].  Displays of relics collected on roots pilgrimages often take the form of “cabinets of curiosities” which, as stated, may be any type of containment system.  Collecting and displaying roots-related relics fulfils a “desire to value, and to be seen to value, things which other people would find valuable for their intrinsic qualities, [filling] an anxiety to fit an honoured memory to an object” [Pearce 1998: 147].  When we consider that “split” identity that post-colonials can experience [Varricchio 2012] – a multiple belonging – collectors are hoping to “identify with several interconnected social cultural contexts” especially since “media reception in the age of globalisation makes it easy to have access to different symbolic systems from different countries” [Gauntlett 2006: 9].

Collecting is often based on curiosity, as well as the need to “understand life, find truth …with an aesthetic appreciation or as a commodity that enhances one’s wealth and power” [Sackler 1998: 133].  This is similar to the wealth and power medieval churches would claim when they held important relics in their collections.

A connection with times past is “of great significance to modern people for whom a feeling of rootlessness becomes increasingly oppressive, and for whom also the easy portability of objects which can move from place to place with their owners is important” … the relics of the past can be curated “quite adequately in the contents of a small suitcase” [Pearce 1995: 244].  That “small suitcase” is a type of cabinet-of-curiosity.

As we pass collections, with their aesthetic and choices, along to our inheritors, we emphasize through that action that what we collected is valuable.  And even though the objects themselves may be superficial, they “can be endowed with content and narrative which produces meaning and identity” [Pearce 1998: 182].

Cabinets of Curiosity

In the 17th century, before museums existed, private collectors (“aristocratic adventurers”) created cabinets-of-curiosities based on objects collected on Grand Tours (see Figure 3).  As these collections grew, were displayed, and eventually donated to the public, the whims and aesthetic of the donors determined the flavour of the resulting museums’ collections [BBC E1 2013].  Specific types of museums developed from collections.  Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh is a medical museum evolved from the “cabinets of curiosities” of the late 1500’s, in which early elements of the collection “reflected their owners’ ideas of art, science and spirituality” [Surgeons Hall 2015].

Identities were built on what was collected, shown, donated [BBC E2 2013]; this has many similarities with relics collected on roots pilgrimages, gathered up with the purpose of providing “persuasive visual elements” to support heritage searches [Wallace 2015: 4].

cabinet of curiosities

Figure 3:    Cabinet of Curiosities from Eighteenth Century London

                   Website of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog 

(image courtesy of

As in the case of roots pilgrimage relic collection, parts of bodies have always been a common focus of collecting and have included “whole preserved bodies … parts, and this can be seen in the collection of holy relics.  Museums also collector body parts (mummies, taxidermies)” [Pearce 1998: 167].  In modern times, this collection of relics reminiscent of the body include photographs taken of and stones collected from gravesites and battlegrounds, and purchases of body adornments such as family tartans and jewelry displaying family heraldry (see Figure 4 – especially note the severed hand).  As will be seen in the case study, there have been instances of aboriginal artists displaying themselves as living historical artefacts within museum cases (cabinets-of-curiosity) for viewers to gaze upon as relics of the past (see Figure 11) [Luna 1986].


Figure 4:    MacDonald of Sleat Family Crest Badge

                   Website of Clan Crest Badges

(image courtesy of

As in all cases of exhibiting collections in cabinets of all sorts, the act of displaying “is usually a means of communicating an object’s value … museums show us which artefacts are authentic” [Keytes 2015: 9].  Authenticity itself, however, can be faked as is the case with the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, a cabinet-of-curiosities type collection of objects which questions the idea of authenticity in collections.  The items, many of which are created by museum founder, David Wilson, are meant to convince the viewer of their legitimacy by the use of museum-quality cabinet display techniques and supposed academically-researched didactic explanations [Weschler 1996: 160].  In this case, where the “object is in charge”, the viewer finds him/herself to be part of the cabinet [Robin 2015].

Other unusual cabinets-of-curiosities, according to Dr. Robin, include natural settings in the environment, where flotsam/jetsam, wind, circumstance, etc., provide opportunities for a display of the results of interconnectedness between human technology and nature.  Here, there is a shared curation of the collection [Robin 2015].  This is significant when it is considered how often roots pilgrims choose stones, flowers, shells, etc., to add to their collections in order to enhance connections with their ancestral roots.

Museums are not the only legitimate places for collected cabinets-of-curiosities; most collections are still to be found in people’s homes [Pearce 1998: 68].  Julia Keytes notes that “objects have the power to provoke associated memories … display of personal artefacts and stories open up new shared space for reflection” [Keytes 2015: 8].

With key terms clarified, this thesis can now be examined through a case study.  The Glenbow Foundation, established by collector and entrepreneur, Eric Harvie, and located in Calgary, Canada, is a prime example of a pilgrimage-type collection curated into a cabinet-of-curiosities-type collection, now a public museum (see Figure 5).  We will also examine how Harvie’s collecting of native artefacts has affected the way First Nations people have been viewed and treated, what their response has been, and what this means for the future of that group’s Canadian identity.

Much has been written about the Glenbow collection and therefore much more information exists than can be included within the limitations of this paper.  The collecting culture that is the basis of that museum warrants further study in a future project.


Figure 5:    The Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada

                   Website of MetroNews Calgary

(image courtesy of


The Glenbow Foundation:  A Case Study of a Post-Colonial Artefact Collection

This case study will examine the collecting life of Canadian post-colonial oilman and businessman, Eric Harvie, who embraced his Scottish ancestry proudly (see Figure 6) [Glenbow Images 2015].  He used his wealth to travel worldwide, collecting many thousands of “artefacts, art and historical documents” relating to not only western Canada but world history [Klaszus 2013].  That collection would eventually be donated to the people of Alberta in the form of a “Victorian cabinet of curiosities”-type museum [Klaszus 2013].

eric harvie

Figure 6:    Eric Lafferty Harvie, Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel and Honorary Colonel of the Calgary Highlanders from 1948 to 1962

Website of the Glenbow Museum

(image courtesy of

 Eric Harvie was born in Ontario but lived in Calgary from the end of the Great War.  He worked in the oil business as a lawyer, where he was once paid for his services in minerals rights.  When the big oil strike hit Leduc, Alberta, in 1947, he became very wealthy [Alberta Champions 2003-2013].  This new financial position meant that he could indulge in satisfying his desire for “everything in the world” [Finkel 2010: 376].  He decided to pursue collecting with a passion based on curiosity about understanding life, “one of the consequential motivating factors behind the activity of collecting objects of the past” [Sackler 1998: 133].  His goal was to “collect the objects representing the history and culture of Western Canada as well as from around the world” which he began in the 1950’s [Glenbow History 2015].  Thus began Harvie’s own version of a roots pilgrimage.

Walter Benjamin says that “for a collector … ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.  Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them” [Benjamin 1931: 67], and this certainly seems to be the case for Harvie, who invested himself personally in his acquisitions.  Alvin Finkel, who examined Harvie’s life within his collection, says that “ the life and work of Harvie as a collector is its own historiographic metafiction and can itself be considered and read as a collection” [Finkel 2010: 380].  He collected in order to preserve the history and culture of western Canada, but his collections also “reflect certain preferences, choices, and desires: that is, Harvie’s agency in the gathering act. The collector, in this way, lives on in his or her collection” [Finkel 2010: 381].

Harvie was influenced by his Scottish ancestry which he showed consistent pride in throughout his life.  History explains why.  Emigrating Highlanders in the 19th and 20th centuries had a “remarkably independent spirit” resulting from their circumstances and this led them to be “highly successful Canadian pioneers” [Campey 2008: 155].  Despite leaving their homeland, they held passionately to Highland traditions, encouraged by the writing of Sir Walter Scott, which fuelled a desire for the emigrants to settle together and maintain their culture.  This cemented the desire for a distinct national Scots Canadian identity [Campey 2008: 198].  The emigrating Scots had “a particularly strong sense of identity and self-belief, including an “uncompromising desire to maintain their own separate identity … the early settlers gave Canada its well-rooted Scottish heritage, which continues to flourish” [Campey 2008: 193].  This continues today with roots pilgrimages to Scotland and collection of historical Scottish relics in order to strengthen ancestral identities.  This pride in the past was a great motivator for Harvie.  This can be seen in many of the Scots-based items in the Glenbow collection (see Figure 7).  Susan Pearce notes there is a “clear propensity of European individuals to define themselves and their cultural relationships in material terms” [Pearce 1995: 149].

rams head

Figure 7:    Ram’s Head Snuff Mull, Glenbow Museum Collection, Calgary, Canada

Website of Avenue Calgary Magazine

(image courtesy of

Harvie’s strong connection with his Scottish past is made clear by the letters found in the Harvie fonds at the Glenbow, which display over 10 years of correspondence with Robert Wotherspoon, mayor of Inverness and vice-chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board.  Wotherspoon’s claim of a personal sighting of the Loch Ness monster, published in a Calgary newspaper in 1957, got Harvie’s attention.  As a passionate promoter of Scottish tourism, Wotherspoon used the Nessie sighting as an advertising platform to encourage travel to Scotland.  This intrigued Harvie, who acquainted himself with Wotherspoon, who helped with acquisitions of items of Scottish heritage and provided “regular lectures and film screenings sponsored by the local St. Andrews Society” [Finkel 2010: 383].  An important consequence of this relationship was that in 1967 Harvie sponsored a copy of the Robert the Bruce statue at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn near Stirling, the original of which still stands overlooking the river valley in Calgary [Finkel 2010: 383].  Finkel says that “In addition to all things Scottish, the transplantation of place plays a large part in who Harvie was and what he was capable of as a prosperous possessor” [Finkel 2010: 383].

Among the things he gathered, Harvie developed an extensive collection of artefacts that “tell the fascinating story of Aboriginal peoples, frontier exploration, and the development of western life” [Glenbow History 2015].  He collected so much First Nations paraphernalia that the basement of his house “resembled a …. 19th century pawn shop” [Finkel 2010: 376].  Regarding acquisition of these ancient objects of the past, Pearce says that “the way in which we feel that these things can open doors to hidden places is one measure of our fascination with them.  The opening of a sealed tomb is the classic locus for this sentiment, but it comes into play whenever material is collected from ancient homes and workplaces” [Pearce 1995: 248].  Further,

“Western agendas … are written into the construction of material narratives drawn from Western ideas of the exotic and how these support European notions of themselves [which have] served to create a superstructure of Western intellectual ideas as a cultural explanation of perceived differences.  Cruder collections, made by government officials, missionaries and military men were reflections of aspirations towards cultural and ideological dominance” [Pearce 1995: 330].

Finkel notes that the “removal, retrieval, and reassignment of a thing’s natural habitat” helps western collectors to make sense of the world of The Other [Finkel 2010: 391].   Object artefacts (relics) “from all stages of this historical progression [have] been the subject of collection after collection, and all of it accumulated in the belief that as well as offering the acquisition of historically beautiful and interesting pieces it offers some kind of personal contact with the past” [Pearce 1995: 246].  This accumulation has most times been done without the permission of the Native community, sometimes without their knowledge, especially in the case of human relics.  There is something about “collecting bones, but skulls in particular, that seems partial to the despotic spirit of a collector” [Finkel 2010: 388].  I don’t suggest that Harvie was doing anything other than exercising an expected action for the time and place in which he lived, but it was nevertheless “appropriation under the sign of colonialism” [Pearce 1998: 169].  That “orientalist” idea that dominated peoples were better off for having their shackles of savage-ness removed from them was in line with the desire to turn them into “rehabilitated residents of productive colonies” [Said 1977: 35].  Collecting and saving artefacts as remnants of the past worked towards this manifest destiny goal.

There was an overall fear that if Native artefacts weren’t saved from mouldering on forest floors that that romanticized history of the “disappearing savage” [Francis 1992] and the “hopelessness of lost encounters” would be forever beyond our grasp [Pearce 1995: 247].  It was felt to be of utmost importance that there be a gathering up of “material culture[s] of disappearing ways of life …. to assert their significance before it as too late” [Pearce 1995: 318].  In ironic contrast to this, First Nations people were being encouraged, in many cases forced, to assimilate and discard their culture, heritage, and sacred items.  As a collector of thousands of items, sometimes indiscriminately, Harvie doesn’t seem to have purposefully exercised “the straightforward victory of one religious practitioner over another” [Pearce 1995: 341] but this was the general practice of his time.  The transference of traditional objects of worship to Christian objects of worship “manifested in material terms the victory of Western notions.” [Pearce 1995: 341].  And this has become a problem, since some aboriginal artefacts such as ceremonial masks were sacred and never meant to experience a casual gaze (see Figure 8); in fact, properly used, they would be hidden away until specific times and then taken out for special uses.

west coast

Figure 8:    Sacred First Nations Objects, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada

                   Website of Day Trips Canada

                   (image courtesy of

Sackler says that “no accurate understanding of objects or the cultures from which they were created can be learned when they are separated from their peoples, ceremonies, and lifeways” [Sackler 1998: 134].  Today, as native people work to reclaim their lost heritage and distinct identities, they are being vocal about the placement and ownership of their sacred objects.  To them, “the insatiable, passionate exploitation of … [native] culture is painfully offensive” [Sackler 1998: 135] (see Figures 9 and 10).  So, First Nations people are now approaching museums to ask that these objects be returned to them to be used in their ceremonies or that objects within collections be placed in specific ways that make sense to indigenous communities.  One example is found at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology.  A program of dialogical curating is now taking place there, in which curation is happening with the collaboration of representatives from First Nations communities in order that aboriginal self-representation is equally regarded in the placement of native artefacts within the collection.  Until recently, the fine-art approach to placement has disregarded the histories attached to objects, while the ethnographic approach to placement has implied “that aboriginal cultures belong in the past” [Unruh 2015: 77].  Many museums are beginning a de-colonization of their collections, making attempts to heal institutionalized colonial rifts through dialogue [Unruh 2015: 78, 83].  There is a modern recognition that a multiplicity of histories means “Western history needs to include indigenous histories within its discourse, but that it needs to admit that not all knowledge fits into its chronology [Unruh 2015: 84].  “The repatriation of masks, wampum, pipes, ceremonial regalia, and cultural patrimony … has become the backbone of reculturalization for surviving cultures” [Sackler 1998: 139].

native gear

Figure 9:    First Nations Ceremonial Clothing, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada

                   Website of Jeff Thomas, Photographer

(image courtesy of

head dress

Figure 10:  First Nations Chief’s Battle Dress, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada

                   Website of VacationIdea

(image courtesy of

It is worth noting that First Nations people have been responding to the imperialized collection of their history and culture with art.  An example is the work of First Nations artist, James Luna.  In 1986, in cooperation with the San Diego Museum of Man, Luna performed a piece in which he placed himself in a museum case within the museum for visitors to view (see Figure 11).  He was in a room which contained other aboriginal artefacts in cases, similar to what can be seen in many museums, including the Glenbow.  Many viewers were startled when they realized they were gazing upon a living person presented as a relic of the past.  The piece was meant to raise questions of ownership of identity and the casually-accepted romance of the vanishing “savage” [Arizona 2015].

james luna

Figure  11:   The Artifact Piece, 1986, James Luna

                     Website of the University of Arizona, College of Fine Arts

                     (image courtesy of www.

Harvie established the Glenbow Foundation in 1954 and, in 1966, donated his complete collection to the people of Alberta [Glenbow Fonds 2015].  Today, the Glenbow Museum, as it is now known, plays an essential role to Western Canadian culture, where its main purpose is to continue to “collect, preserve and display material relating to the human and natural history of Western Canada” [Finkel 2010: 377].  For Harvie, his “self-definition through material” [Pearce 1998: 10] built his identity as surely as were built the identities of donors of grand tour collections which became the basis for European museums.  His collection is an “extended self” much like a person’s body is an extension of him/herself [Pearce 1998: 162].  It “proved the travel” of his roots pilgrimages [BBC E2 2013].  Philanthropic donations of collections have always ensured immortality [BBC E3 2013].

The Glenbow collection is not only based on the traditional donor-created cabinet-of-curiosities museums of the 19th century, but is occasionally laid out exactly like one, as is the case for a current exhibition called Cabinets of Curiosity which runs up to January 17, 2016 [Gauntlet 2015] (see Figure 12).  The objects on display in cabinets and cases are meant to be handled and explored by curious viewers.

Glenbow CoC

Figure 12:    “Glenbow Opens Cabinet of Curiosities in New Show”, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada

                     Website of The Gauntlet Newspaper

(image courtesy of

The Glenbow’s main collection contains not only relic-like religious objects, but also actual relics of the past history of the Canadian prairies, such as a taxidermy of a plains bison (see Figure 13), the staple food of First Nations people, which, when it was gone, contributed greatly to the disintegration of native life.


Figure 13:    Taxidermy of Bison, Glenbow Museum Collection, Calgary, Canada

                     Website of Travel to Canada Now

(image courtesy of

In conclusion, it is clear that issues of identity in Canadian post-colonial culture are complex, involving at least two groups of people:  both descendants of the colonizers and descendants of the people who were oppressed by colonization.  This has created ideas of confused ancestry in Canadians, who tend then to harken back to pre-colonial ancestries.  In the search for roots, people often go on roots pilgrimages to connect with epic histories and grand events, and ancestors who have more supposed-honourable identities.  These journeys, as in the case of religious pilgrimages, often result in the collection of “relics” of the past, which confirm the pilgrim’s connection with a less shameful history.  As Pearce says, “the desire to achieve experience prompt[s] a shift in notions about the past and how it might be seen.  Objects which were already seen to be ‘true relics’ by reason of their ‘real relationship’ with past people and events were transformed by the romantic eye into a sensation of knowing the past, or resurrecting the body of the past intact so that it might be experienced in the present” [Pearce 1995: 131].

Pilgrimage-attained relics are brought back home and displayed with pride in settings similar to cabinets-of-curiosities.  These collected objects become “blood-line connections” linking generations, providing each with “a satisfying place in the flow of things … a kind of ancestor worship, where part of the point is to participate in the power which can flow from the mighty dead of one’s own kin and … enjoy the prestige which accrues from having ancestors at all.  So the individual takes on an extended personality which reaches backwards through ancestors and forward through putative descendants” [Pearce 1995: 242].

In early modern Europe, attempts to understand the world “involved an enhanced interest in collecting and the organisation of collections, which was both a manifestation of the developing cast of mind and an important element in the way in which that mind was shaped.  Collecting became a passion” [Pearce 1995: 109].  In that vein, as has been shown, some roots pilgrims, such as Glenbow founder, Eric Harvie, have amassed enormous collections of relics, eventually passed on as types of cabinets-of-curiosities which become the basis for organized community viewing in museum settings.

Collections are ways of mapping out the world; of providing ways for people to work out their lives and, in doing so, obtain identity [Pearce 1995: 253].  And collected “relics” are sought in order for collectors to reconcile themselves to their place in the world.  Artefacts of the past point to the assurance of life.  As for “all other rites of funeral and sacrifice, death is for the living” [Pearce 1995: 25].  Further, gathered into cabinets-of-curiosities, they’re organized in very specific ways that indicate that the collector has travelled, has seen the world’s wonders.  It’s a way of proving worth, of showing off [deWaal 2015].

The history of Europe is full of the stories of those who have had to move on, to find a new way, a new life, an “open[ing] up [of] new lands”; these have contributed to the “restless, aggressive, acquisitive character, which, for better or worse, is typical of Europeans.  Their existence is part of the reason why European trade, industry and colonisation developed as it did” [Pearce 1995: 84].  In these experiencing the new world, wonder was the typical response [Weschler 1996: 81].  Therefore, the actions of Eric Harvie are so easily both believable and acceptable.  Finkel says, “In compiling a history, can one ever do any more than simply collect?” [Finkel 2010: 392].  It is what roots pilgrims are doing in order to solidify an identity they can live with; romanticized nostalgia allowing for crises averted.



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deWaal, E., 2015.  Edmund deWaal: On the Deblin Cup. 2015. [Film] London: Swan Films for the British Museum.

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Finkel, Alvin; Sarah Carter; Peter Fortna (eds.), 2010. Eric Harvie: Without and Within Robert Kroetsch’s “Alibi”, in The West and Beyond: A New Perspective on an Imagined Region, Athabasca: Athabasca University.

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Figure 1   Gray, Jamie (2015).  Mind Map: Progressions

Figure 2   Artist/Craftsman unknown (12th century).  Reliquary Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty.  [Historical artefact].  (website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015) (accessed December 6, 2015).

Figure 3   Artist/Craftsman unknown (18th century London).  Cabinet of Curiosities from Eighteenth Century London.  [Art].  (website of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog, 2015) (accessed December 6, 2015).

Figure 4   Scottish Clan Crest Badge (modern).  MacDonald of Sleat Family Crest Badge.  [Jewellery].  (website of Clan Crest Badges) (accessed December 6, 2015).

Figure 5   MetroNews Calgary (2001-2015).  The Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada.  [Photograph].  (website of MetroNews Calgary)         (accessed December 5, 2015).

Figure 6   Glenbow Museum, Eric Harvie fonds (1962).  Eric Lafferty Harvie, Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel and Honorary Colonel of the Calgary Highlanders from 1948 to 1962. [Photograph].  (website of the Glenbow Museum, 2015) (accessed December 5, 2015).

Figure 7   Avenue Calgary Magazine (2015).  Ram’s Head Snuff Mull, Glenbow Museum Collection, Calgary, Canada.  [Historical artefact].  (website of Avenue Calgary magazine) (accessed December 4, 2015).

Figure 8   Day Trips Canada (2015).  Sacred First Nations Objects, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada.  [Historical artefacts].  (website of Day Trips Canada)     (accessed December 5, 2015).

Figure 9   Thomas, Jeff (2015).  First Nations Ceremonial Clothing, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada.  [Historical artefacts].  (website of Jeff Thomas, Photographer) (accessed December 5, 2015).

Figure 10 VacationIdea (1999-2015).  First Nations Chief’s Battle Dress, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada.  [Historical artefact].  (website of VacationIdea) (accessed December 5, 2015).

Figure 11 Luna, James (1986).  The Artefact Piece.  [Performance art].  (website of the University of Arizona College of Fine Arts) (accessed November 25, 2015).

Figure 12 The Gauntlet Newspaper (2015).  Glenbow Opens Cabinet of Curiosities in New Show”, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada.  [Installation photograph].  (website of The Gauntlet Newspaper), (accessed December 5, 2015)

Figure 13 Travel to Canada Now (2003-2010).  Taxidermy of Bison, Glenbow Museum Collection, Calgary, Canada.  [Historical artefact].  (website of Travel to Canada Now), (accessed December 5, 2015)



The Magic of Ordinary Days

I’ve been thinking about what it means to me to be able to live in Edinburgh for two years.  Even though I was very excited to be able to come here to obtain a higher degree pertinent to a great interest of mine, school has not been the defining factor of this experience.

And that’s a good thing.  Because uni has been a bit of a challenge that has leaned more towards the disappointing.  I feel this is not entirely the fault of the institution but helped by my age, experience, transferred North American expectations of post-grad education, and a bit of depression brought on by some crushing loneliness.

It’s the solitude, however, that has contributed to making the time here magical.  Let me explain.

Without solitude – which, by the way, I embrace (it’s nowhere near the same as loneliness) – I would not likely have experienced:

The scene I witnessed one night at 3am when, getting up briefly, I glanced out the window and saw a bride and groom dancing themselves down the middle of the high street, all by themselves.  Silently.  Ghostly.

The times that I’ve sat silently and contemplatively in cemeteries, in all weathers, feeling the space, soaking up the peacefulness.  Sometimes eating my breakfast or reading a book.

The times I’ve glanced out the window to see snow gently falling from the dusky sky.  It doesn’t seem to happen often or last long.  In Canada, snow is something about which to have trepidation (what will the road conditions be like when it stops?); in Edinburgh, it evokes a bit of magic because it’s here and then it’s gone.

The times I’ve seen from my bed all waxings and wanings of the moon sailing over the spire of St. Giles cathedral.

The time I saw from my window a torchlight procession, going down the high street, accompanied by the pagan shrieks and screams of the human interpretation of nature most primal.

The time, in contrast to the above, when I saw, felt, and heard the absolute stillness of a thousand people standing for a minute of silence at the war memorial on Remembrance Day.

The time I returned home from accompanying my daughter to the airport at 5am, walking on the normally frenetically busy high street when there was no one around and no traffic to break the dignified spell of the Jacobian and Georgian and Victorian buildings all around.

The time I watched the almost-full eclipse of the sun from the castle esplanade, and, more interestingly, watched others watching from the surrounding hills.

The time I heard a rare thing in this busy city, a little bird singing cheerfully down one of the closes at the back of the flats.

The time a fly which had been living in my flat for two days landed on my hand and stayed there long enough for me to carefully lift the window and let it fly away outside.

The time I saw a bird’s nest made of cassette tape, high above the ground but at eye level from a bridge on which I was standing.

So much.  So much.

And all outside of the reason I came here, which was to go to school.  Instead, and indeed in addition to that, I HAVE been to school; the school of surroundings.  I have been to church; the church of nature.  I have been to both heaven and hell inside of myself.  I have been.  I am being.

And so, I can not regret having come here for this period of time, even though things have happened back home which I’ve been very sorry to miss, such as my daughter’s graduation, and heartbreaks my daughters have had to experience without my arms around them.  I can’t see this experience as encompassing merely an institutional education; that’s become peripheral.  Living here has become a much richer experience than the dryness found in academia.  And, more interestingly, what I know now is that I didn’t even have to be HERE exactly to have it.

I could have seen people do amazing things at weird times anywhere else.  I could have experienced nature’s strange wonders elsewhere.  I could have found peace in cemeteries the world over.  I did find them here, but I’ll find them more and again and again when I return home to the prairies; just by different names.  Because what I’m learning, as I go along, is that home is where I am being, not where I’ve been or where I’m going.  I love and yearn for physical places, but home is where I am right now on any ordinary, magical day.

Close to the Bone

If you’ve been following along, you know that I am fascinated with bones.  Not only are they beautiful in their construction, they’re interesting in that they are remnants of life but have no life in them.  They’re the ultimate memento mori:  remember that you will die [implied:  and therefore live well].  I make a study of mortality; it’s part of my current masters thesis at the University of Edinburgh.  Identity and mortality go hand in hand.  We identify strongly with the physical body we walk around in.  And our identities, as far as the world is concerned, begin to fade shortly after we’ve passed on.  It can’t be helped.  We live; we die.  We’re egocentric beings who don’t care much about other people’s identities nearly as much as our own.  Once we die, we’ve been, and we’re done.  All that’s left, at least for a while, are our parts.

2015-02-13 15.48.38-1

I’ve been living in Edinburgh for the last year and a bit, going to university to obtain a masters in fine arts.  Because of my interest in mortality, I have been anxious to visit the Surgeons Hall Museum to see the various bones kept there.  The museum has been under renovation for the past couple of years, but it re-opened a month ago.  Yesterday, I visited it.

Oh. Wow.

I expected bones.  But I think in my mind I envisioned a lot of complete human skeletons lined up for inspection.  Nope; so naive of me.  As well as a truly fascinating room the purpose of which was outlining the history of medicine and its advances (THANK YOU, James Young Simpson, for modern-day anaesthesia … oh God, thank you) and methods (including the grave-robbing Resurrection Men …. *shudder*), there is a long Playfair library-like two-level hall which holds thousands of glass jars displaying every malady and curiosity known in the human body:  gunshot/knife/sword/grenade wounds to bone/skin/muscle, tattooed skin, damaged eyeballs, broken and badly-healed bones, birth defects, diseases and infections to all parts of the body, and, horror of horrors, dental issues and procedures.  I skipped the dental stuff because I already have bad dreams about teeth. (accessed October 12, 2015) (accessed October 12, 2015)

But let’s be clear.  The museum is not meant to horrify.  It exists to educate.  When I visited, it was clear there were many medical students there discussing what they were seeing.  And thank God for them, too, because when I come down with something, I want those people to have seen it somewhere before and talked about it until they’ve got it figured out.  I’m glad they were peering longer and much closer to those glass jars than I had the heart or stomach to do.

The thing that has potential to make visiting the museum somewhat upsetting for non-medical people such as myself (aside from close-up views of both what disease and damage can do to us) is the recognition that we’re viewing fellow humans.  Actual people.  Presented coldly, clinically, in cases and jars and bottles, in various bits and pieces.  Folks who lived, sometimes with disfigurement or in pain, sometimes to old age but many who didn’t live past birth; but all people. (accessed October 12, 2015) (accessed October 12, 2015)

Therefore, I’ve experienced a bit of a shift.  Bones have become more to me than symbols of mortality, objects of beautiful construction.  I’m grateful for the eye-opening experience, and I hope that I never see a bone of any sort again without knowing better to think about the life that was once contained in the cages of bones that make up bodies.  It won’t stop me collecting them and contemplating them, but the issue has come appropriately close to the bone for me.

Clearly She Loved To Eat

I’ve been hanging out in graveyards; had my breakfast there this morning, in fact.  I love them.  Though crowded beyond belief (try not to think about how many people you’re walking over), they are the most peaceful places in any city or town – places to be contemplative and thoughtful, and to inspire slowing down.  Well, and in which to enjoy a nice quiet latte.

breakfast in the cemetery

I live in Edinburgh at the moment, so this morning I wandered through Greyfriars cemetery.  I was on my way to somewhere else, but it seemed the right thing to do since I wasn’t in a hurry.  As I sat on the boundary stone of a grave plot eating yoghurt, I got thinking about the ways that people’s characters are celebrated by those who they leave behind.  As I perused the carved words on the mostly Jacobian- and Georgian-aged gravestones around me, I noticed people were sometimes given accolades in remembrance:  sensible, knowledgeable, faithful, beloved, well-doing.  Some were extolled for elevated views, exemplary virtue, for being firm in adversity.  Mostly though, people are noted as simply passed on, dates of birth and death noted.  Occasionally, the men’s occupations are celebrated – minister, physician, professor, soldier, bookbinder.  But women are never acknowledged as being anything but mother, daughter, or even the mean-sounding “relict”; simply the shreds of what is left behind as a remainder of what was previously whole.  Birth order is sometimes noted as important:  youngest or oldest, or, for example, third of eight surviving children.  Babies and small children have no accolades, being too young, I suppose, to have earned them.  Only deep sorrow emanates from the brief notes on their markers.

Superior understanding


Dutiful wife


All this made me wonder about the ways my own identity might be noted should a grave marker ever be in my future.  Though I’d love to be known for my “good sense” or “indefatigable zeal”, I fear that, being a bit of a hot-head, I’m almost never “firm in adversity” and rarely display “superior understanding.”  I can see my grave marker carved with such things as “always so angry”, “quick to brood”, “obsessive cleaner”, “clearly loved to eat”, perhaps “relict.”

I guess I’m just saying that perhaps our identities should be carved out in real time and left at that.  What remains when we’re gone are a few people’s shreds of memories.  And then we fade away.  And this is good.  Because I’d rather that than what’s happened to poor old “CL” at Greyfriars.  Not even the spelling out of his entire name was warranted on his grave stone.  This smacks of a quick, obligatory burying, perhaps by ungrateful or unhappy children … or a “relict” ready to move on with life.


So, just shroud me and roll me into the ground, surrounded by good dirt, to be of some use to the trees and grass.  Leave no words behind to be pondered.  If I haven’t left my mark on the world somewhere, somehow on my own, then words will always be as easily faded as carved stone worn by wind and rain.