Former museum director carries Northern ethics in heritage field

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Robert Janes has developed a distinguished career in museum studies and the heritage field within Canada, but the approach to his work and the ethics he carries to this day are very much rooted in his experiences in the Northwest Territories.

Robert Janes, first museum director of the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre from 1976 to 1986 took part in the 40th anniversary celebrations of the territorial institution earlier this month.
Pat Kane photo

Janes, who was the first museum director at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre between 1976 and 1986, joined the museum’s 40th anniversary celebrations, June 15.

Now living in Canmore and overseeing his own museum consulting firm, Janes says his early experience joining the museum and working with Indigenous people shaped his worldview and his approach to running museums later on in his life.

Janes joined the then new institution as a 28-year-old fresh out of graduate school, but owed much of its establishment to the vision of the late Commissioner Stuart Hodgson.

“He really was a was a visionary,” Janes recalled. “The museum I think was really his idea and he was the push. He got the money needed and was able to get $10 million to assemble that museum in 1976. In those days that was an enormous amount of money.”

Hodgson recognized a major problem in the North at the time, Janes said, which was that historical artifacts discovered in the North were often taken and placed in national museums in Ottawa, in large part because there was no professional museum presence in the North.

“In those days, the territories had a lot less power – vis-a-vis the federal government politically, economically and socially,” he said.

“All of the cultural material in the North, when found by somebody, maybe ended up in Yellowknife once in a while, but the vast bulk went to the national museums in Ottawa. “Northerners were getting tired of that.”

Robert Janes, the first museum director at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, addresses a crowd gathered for the 40th anniversary of the museum on June 15.
Pat Kane photo

Janes said there was the exception of a Yellowknife museum presence in the building now occupying Northern Images on Franklin Avenue, however, it was largely volunteer-driven and lacking the professionalism needed to handle precious artifacts from both the Western Arctic and Eastern Arctic regions.

As a young man, Janes didn’t have the rich experience of running a museum, but he was noted for his background working on the land and connecting with local communities. Before leading the museum, Janes had come to Yellowknife as part of an archeological study in the Thelon Game Sanctuary in 1970. Throughout the seventies he had several archaeological projects in the North that included working with local Indigenous people, in particular the excavation of an early 19th-century Northwest Company fur trading post near Wrigley and work finding heritage sites in preparation for the then planned Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. When the Justice Thomas Berger Inquiry canned that project, he ended up with his wife and living in the bush with local Dene people near Tulita for six months.

“That was a transformative experience,” he recalled. “It convinced us both that the only place we wanted to live was in the NWT. ”

In 1986 and after 10 years,  Janes said he was satisfied with the development of the museum. He had developed a multi-departmental institution that included territorial archives, collections,an art gallery, a library and an archaeological research unit that allowed PhD students to study artifacts from the North every summer. The heritage centre also provided museum advisory help to small communities looking to properly acquire and handle heritage artifacts.

All of it was transformative for the North and all of it was unique because it put all of these services under one working administration, he said.

“When I got there, the annual budget was $70,000 with me and one employee,” he recalls. “When I left, there were 22 full-time employees and a whole bunch of casual employees. And a budget pushing $1.8 (million) to $2 million.”


Move to Glenbow

After a three-year stint as head director of  the former Science Institute of the Northwest Territories (now part of the Aurora Research Institute) Janes became director at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary in 1989. He found it to be not only a bigger learning curve as he oversaw 160 staff members and a $17 million budget, but a culture shock given his experience working in the North under a civil service that was often made up of Indigenous people.

“I came down to Calgary and I found Indigenous peoples were completely marginalized,” he said. “They were sort of drunks at the east end of the city and this really shocked me.

“I was really empowered by my northern experience and the strong relationships we developed with communities and Indigenous peoples. I brought that ethic to Glenbow and we immediately began to build a relationship with the Blackfoot Confederacy which at that time was completely alienated from the Glenbow.”

Most notably, in 2000 Janes oversaw what was then seen in the museum world as the largest, Canadian, unconditional repatriation of sacred, Indigenous materials – 251 – to the Blackfoot Confederacy.

“So my early Northern perspective that I brought down really characterized my work and it manifested in a lot of different ways,” he said.

“My experience in the North really inspired me to listen to these people and try to do the right thing.”

Since leaving the Glenbow in the early 2000s, he has expanded his career around museum work, including as an editor, scholar, board member, consultant, and author among a number of other efforts. He has most recently been advocating for museums to take greater roles in areas of social concern like Indigenous rights and climate change.

“When you look at landslides, permafrost melt and coastal erosion in the North, we have a major problem on our hands,” he said.

“I think because of their knowledge based, community based and most highly trusted social institutions in society, they are in a position to help out.”

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Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. He came from Prince Edward County, Ont., and obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Working in Yellowknife, he covers education-based stories and general news but has also taken other beats in the past, including city hall and entertainment. He is a champion of the printed word and the importance of newspapers. As a board member of the United Way NWT and Rotary True North, he believes in the importance of civic engagement and community building. He spends his spare time with his boxer Sharona. Simon can be reached at (867) 766-8295 and editorial@nnsl.com.