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‘Institutional transformation’

Banting fellow funded $140,000 for Chilean museum decolonization work

By Chad Pelley

Imagine the remains of your ancestors are in a museum.

Now imagine that you are being tormented by the spirits of those ancestors, a result of their remains being kept there against their will.

At the heart of Dr. Lucas da Costa Maciel’s research is “the urgency to stop treating beings as heritage.” Memorial’s newest Banting fellow, Dr. da Costa Maciel is working with a Chilean Indigenous group to do just that.

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Banting Post-doctoral Fellowship is one of the most prestigious post-doctoral awards in North America.

Dr. da Costa Maciel sitting cross-legged on a colourful tile bench outdoors
Dr. da Costa Maciel’s research on “collections as captivity” will query how the Chilean state could claim ownership of what are, from the Mapuche perspective, their ancestors, and will help transform the museum into a decolonial tool.
Photo: Submitted

The program is renowned worldwide for developing the leadership potential of notable new researchers. Dr. da Costa Maciel will receive a total of $140,000 in funding for the research they are conducting under the supervision of Dr. Mario Blaser in Memorial’s Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“On behalf of Memorial University and the School of Graduate Studies, I congratulate and welcome Dr. da Costa Maciel,” said Dr. Amy Warren, dean, School of Graduate Studies. “It goes without saying that being named a Banting fellow is a major accomplishment and these funds support a program of research that will no doubt positively contribute to Memorial University’s research profile. We are excited to welcome Dr. da Costa Maciel.”

Research background

During the Chilean state’s military annexation of Indigenous Mapuche territories in the 19th century, a wide variety of items, including human remains, were looted from Mapuche cemeteries and sacred places of spiritual significance.

Many of those items ended up in the Mapuche Museum of Cañete collection.

“By keeping their ancestors captive, the museum is re-enacting the ongoing colonialism upon which the Chilean state is grounded.” — Dr. Lucas da Costa Maciel

In recent years, the museum came to be managed by Mapuche staff. They began to fall sick because they say ancestral powers associated with the collections do not want to be there.

“By keeping their ancestors captive, the museum is re-enacting the ongoing colonialism upon which the Chilean state is grounded,” said Dr. da Costa Maciel. “Consequently, Mapuche staff are intent on finding a way to free the ancestors by turning the museum into a decolonial tool.”

Not objects

Doing so will involve an experiment of “profound institutional transformation” in terms of creating new everyday practices that treat museum contents as spiritual beings, not objects, says Dr. da Costa Maciel.

This could entail singing to the ancestors and spirits, performing ceremonies for them inside the museum or giving offerings to those on display and in the warehouse.

“Generally speaking, museum conservation requires that things be seen as inanimate objects,” said Dr. da Costa Maciel. “Every day, employees carry out a series of activities that start from the perspective that they deal with collection objects. They measure temperature, weigh or measure objects, do research on their material constitution, etc.

“However, these conservation practices are in direct conflict to everyday Mapuche practices of caring for their ancestors and spirits,” they continued. “Therefore, it is necessary to exceed the requirements of practising “things-as-objects” and to take care of “things-as-living beings,” following Mapuche traditional knowledge.”

Part of Dr. da Costa Maciel’s post-doctoral research will focus on disputes over heritage and querying the Chilean state’s ownership of what are, from the Mapuche perspective, their ancestors.

“I will be investigating how Chilean national legislation ends up transforming Mapuche ancestors into objects that can be extracted, collected and displayed and how the museum staff care for and work together with their ancestors to transform the institution into a decolonial tool.”

They say that, rather than reducing the Mapuche peoples’ claims to cultural beliefs, their research will take them as statements of facts with which one must work.

As well, the research results are aimed to be not only of academic value, but also a collaborative contribution to strengthen the museum’s decolonization.

Using Memorial’s connections

“Through the ongoing support of the Government of Canada, talented early-career researchers such as Dr. da Costa Maciel have the opportunity to work with our interdisciplinary teams, advance critical research and build their leadership skills,” said Dr. Tana Allen, acting vice-president (research). “Sincere congratulations to Dr. da Costa Maciel on this deserving honour. I look forward to learning more about their research.”

Dr. da Costa Maciel says they are excited to be able to tap into the Department of Archaeology’s historical collaboration between its faculty and Indigenous-led organizations.

“Conducting research here will allow me to be part of these collaborations and promote exchanges between First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in Canada and my collaborators of Mapuche origin, in Chile. Likewise, the study will benefit from Dr. Blaser’s extended network inside and outside Canada, mainly from the collaborations he maintains with Innu Nation leaders and the Indigenous Heritage Circle.”

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