“We are a part of nature,” says Leah Best. “Not apart of nature.”
The Head of Knowledge at the Royal BC Museum says that that was one of the guiding philosophies behind their new exhibition, Orcas: Our Shared Future.
Orcas has officially opened for public viewing, and Best says they are hoping to offer several perspectives on humanity’s relationships with these iconic marine mammals.
“We have scientific expertise, scientists who work in biodiversity science,” she said.
“We have an incredible, hugely significant indigenous collection, and expertise with Lou-Ann and the Indigenous persons and repatriation department. And we also have expertise around popular culture. The idea of Orcas was something that we could draw from all those areas of expertise.”
The exhibition has been in the works for years but was delayed in its opening due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It offers displays of work by Indigenous artists, a collection of artifacts showing popular culture around orca whales, and interactive pieces such as videos and a smart screen game showing environmental effects on marine wildlife.
Humans have had tumultuous and at times harmful interactions with orca whales throughout history. Best says the exhibition seeks to educate people on these negative experiences while fostering a new sense of positivity.
“There are some pretty dark stories in the exhibition but there’s also a lot of hope, and particularly in the last year when we’ve had so many new baby orcas born,” she says.
“We’ve got all those new orcas listed at the very end of the exhibition so we definitely want to want to finish the exhibition off with a sense of hope.”
That list includes whales born to J pod, a pod of whales that frequents the waters around the Southern Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia.
J pod made international headlines in 2018 when a mother orca showed a heartwrenching display of grief, carrying a dead calf on her nose for over two weeks.
Two whale calves were born to the pod in 2020, news that was greeted by the scientific community with joy.
For Lou-Ann Neel, Curator of Indigenous Collections and Repatriation at the Royal BC Museum, these news items show the importance of caring for the natural world around us.
“It’s very simple everyday things we can all do to protect the environment,” says Neel.
“And for us, it’s also from the indigenous perspective, all that long history, talks about how different tribes used to manage and steward the lands and the waters in their territories to ensure the safety of these creatures, because they’re considered our relatives.”
Indigenous people have had long relationships with orca whales, and not just in Canada. Indigenous cultures in places like Australia, New Zealand and Hawai’i are several examples that show humanity’s deep historical ties to these animals.
Neel, who is from the Mamalilikulla and Kwagiulth people of the Kwakwaka’wakw, also says there is a tremendous diversity of First Nation communities in Canada, with 35 language groups in B.C. alone.
She says while the exhibit does not represent every Nation, staff have tried to draw from multiple traditions and legends, which in turn emphasizes lessons for modern audiences.
“We have to be careful, you have to be mindful,” says Neel.
“That’s what a lot of the stories that are told in the indigenous pieces that are in the collection. It’s about being mindful and being careful, and walking carefully on the earth and being gentle with the earth.”
The Royal BC Museum is planning to carry that message to an international audience as well. Orcas: our shared future was built in partnership with Museums Partner, and is designed to travel to other institutions.
Talks are already underway with other museums that can potentially host the exhibition.
In the meantime, Victorians will be able to visit Orcas: our shared future until January 9, 2022.
- Where: Royal BC Museum, 675 Belleville Street
- When: Open now until January January 9, 2022