Faculty profile: Professor Cara Krmpotich

A keen interest in the repatriation of Native artifacts and kinship in Aboriginal communities led Museum Studies Professor Cara Krmpotich to work with the Haida Nation of British Columbia many years ago, allowing her to develop a profound knowledge of their philosophies, and a deep bond.

photo of cara krmpotichThe Haida live primarily on the Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as 'Haida Gwaii,' off the northern shore of the western province.

“I see myself as an intermediary and ally between the academic community and the Haida, but they are their own advocates,” she stresses.

Successfully merged her passion for archaeology, the Haida Nation, and museums.

Professor Krmpotich has just completed her first year at the Faculty of Information during which time she taught Collections Management, Museums and Indigenous Communities, and Curatorial Practice.

Cara's background

By the time she was twelve years old she had already set her sights on becoming an archaeologist, and even at that early age had decided to specialize in the Incan civilization.

This goal formed the foundation of her academic journey into the field of Museum Studies.

Cara studied archaeology at Trent University, and decided she wanted to work with living, rather than ancient, cultures. She obtained a Masters in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia, and a PhD from the University of Oxford.

She believes that her ability to connect with the Haida people is influenced by strong female role models, a constant throughout her career. One such mentor was Trent Professor Julia Harrison, who hired Cara as the Collections Manager of that University’s art collection. Still an influence on her work today, Prof. Harrison “always pushed her students to test out challenging ideas and theory” and imbued in Cara a great appreciation of the complex relationships between museums and Canadian Aboriginal communities.

Kinship, memory, and repatriation

Merging her passion for archaeology, the Haida Nation, and museums, for her PhD research Professor Krmpotich had intended to conduct extended ethnographic research on Aboriginal repatriation efforts, but changed her focus to kinship.

 Lucille Bell, Vernon Williams, Jr., Madeleine Ding, Nadine Wilson, Chief Gaahlaay (Lonnie Young), Cara Krmpotich. Photograph by Laura Peers“I expected to be studying the social context of Aboriginal rights and title on Haida Gwaii. Instead, I found myself exploring how kinship and memory are co-created, and why this was essential for understanding Haida efforts to repatriate their ancestors’ remains and cultural treasures.”

“The sessions allowed the participants to touch everything, and spend time with all the objects up-close — laid out on tables in research rooms, not spread out on shelves in storage.”

At Oxford, Cara worked with Laura Peers, curator at the University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and co-editor, with Alison Brown, of a foundational volume on museums and ethnographic source communities. With funding from the Pitt Rivers Museum and British Museum, they embarked on a research project that, in 2009, saw twenty-one Haida delegates participate in hands-on sessions with some 800 Haida objects.

“The sessions allowed the participants to touch everything, and spend time with all the objects up-close — laid out on tables in research rooms, not spread out on shelves in storage.”

As the lead facilitator for this visit, Cara’s roles included sorting through objects, revising records, and organizing public events. She notes that the sessions demonstrated one way in which the pillage of objects from Native cultures can begin to be remediated. Though repatriation of the artifacts is unlikely, loans could take place more easily in the future, especially with an ongoing relationship between museums and Aboriginal peoples.

The importance of contextualization

Prof. Krmpotich also notes that decontextualization can be another issue for museums exhibiting First Haida delegate Gwaii Edenshaw peers through a mask at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Photograph by Vince CollisonNations materials, explaining that it can result when a non-Aboriginal voice presents the stories or artifacts. This can create, rather than bridge, distance.

Newer exhibitions therefore try to include context, which requires a well thought-out process and a profound understanding of Aboriginal philosophy.

“Today, I believe Canadian museum professionals need to be aware of Canada’s leading role negotiating source community and museum partnerships, but also they need to understand
what work still needs to happen on this front and why it is vital for the future of Canada’s cultural institutions, and Canadian society."

Understanding source communities

Cara advises future museum professionals to develop a better understanding of the groups they will be working with.

"I believe Canadian museum professionals need to be aware of Canada's leading role negotiating source community and museum partnerships..."

She asserts: “We need to be thoughtful, expansive and critical about both our intellectual agendas and our practice. We need to be able to experiment with ideas in the classroom — students should to be able to work through the unpopular, or politically incorrect, side of an argument.”

photo of Cara Krmpotich paddling a canoeAs Prof. Krmpotich discusses the path that led her to the iSchool, she refers to the strong sense of family that exists on Haida Gwaii. She was pregnant when she facilitated the Haida hands-on sessions, and her son, now almost two, has grown up among the Haida people and is seen as part of their family. This has given her even more insight and reason to immerse herself in their philosophies, beliefs and relationships.

Courses taught by Professor Krmpotich

MSL1150H  Collections Management
MSL2000H  Curatorial Practice
  Museums and Indigenous Communities



Professor Cara Krmpotich
Master of Museum Studies (MMSt) program at the iSchool