Ruth B. Phillips Abstract

Imperfect Translations: Indigenous Gifts and Royal Collecting in Victorian Canada

Ruth B. Phillips
Carleton University, Ottawa

Within the educational complex of small buildings designed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for the education of the royal children at their Osborne House estate is a small museum built in the style of a Swiss chalet. Its interior– lined with mahogany display cabinets containing archaeological fragments, ethnographic specimens, textiles, stuffed birds and natural history specimens from all over the world– presents itself as a miniaturized Victorian museum. The contents originated as gifts and souvenirs collected by members of the royal family during their world travels; in the hand-lettered labels official and private collecting histories are entangled in a manner that seems to parody the great museums then under development and to reveal the power relationships and taxonomies of knowledge of the Victorian era.

One case in the Swiss Cottage Museum contains a collection of beaded moccasins, porcupine quill ornamented baskets, dolls, war clubs and other items given by Indigenous representatives to the young Prince of Wales in 1860 during the first royal visit to Canada. For settlers, his tour represented an opportunity to display the Canadian colonies’ majestic landscapes and their rapidly modernizing cities. The colonies were on the cusp of confederation into a new nation, and the transfer of power from the Colonial office in London was already in progress. For Indigenous peoples, struggling to retain lands and cultural traditions under even greater threat from settler government, the royal visit presented an opportunity to remind the Prince and his party of the Crown’s continuing obligations. Following ancient protocols, Indigenous representatives from Nova Scotia to Ontario presented the Prince with the gifts which would later be deposited in the Swiss Cottage Museum.

This paper discusses the ways in which the collection history, the individual items and the museum installation can be read as imperfect translations between imperial and Indigenous systems of aesthetics, politics, and ritual exchange. The Prince, having read Longfellow’s Hiawatha in preparation for his trip, was conditioned to view his gifts through a romantic lens, while Indigenous artists and representatives were concerned to use their presentations to remind the Crown of its historical promises. Once the collection reached Osborne House, it was again re-translated into the emerging conventions of evolutionist ethnographic display. The layered and contradictory meanings of the Osborne House collection are read today as evidencing both artistic innovation and cultural preservation, political resistance and economic accommodation. As an historical legacy, however, the collection also lifts the veil of primitivist anonymity, for many baskets and other items still retain– almost uniquely for the period– original signed presentation labels naming makers and givers.