South Asian Studies Institute
South Asian Studies Institute This article is more than 3 months old
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“Where is Our Museum?” asks Punjabi and broader South Asian Canadian community in BC

A group of community members say they’re disappointed after failed promises from the provincial government

Nearly four years after the provincial government announced a South Asian museum as part of its election platform, members of BC’s Punjabi and South Asian communities are feeling left in the dark.

In their 2020 election platform, the BC NDP promised “to create a first-of-its-kind museum to document the history, art and contributions of South Asian people in British Columbia”. 

While the government has embarked on creating committees and undertaking consultations, a local group is taking matters into their own hands, after what they say are failed promises and “harmed relationships.”

A group called the Museum Liberation Force, a self-described “adhoc group of community members, assembled to engage the Punjabi and wider South Asian community in authentic conversation and shared learning towards building a museum in BC that represents our past, present and future,” penned an open letter related to the future South Asian Canadian Museum, calling out the government’s lack of commitment to engaging the community in a meaningful way. 

The group says that although the government initiated a museum advisory comittee late last year, it has provided no updates on the plans for the museum, the potential location, or any other tangible details. 

Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, a local historian and museum professional is a member of the Museum Liberation Force who resigned from the government’s museum advisory committee in December, citing “no meaningful intention to listen to communities,” on the government’s part.

“It is with a heavy heart that I will be withdrawing from participating in this engagement advisory committee. Over the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that there is no meaningful intention to listen to communities – but rather, to simply forge full steam ahead regardless of our reservations,” Sandhra wrote in her email to the Ministry.

“With respect to the others on this committee, I am genuinely concerned that we are being used to simply fulfill the effervescent tick box approach that white supremacist systems so love to use.”

Sandhra says that MLF offers “hope,” in planning the way forward.

“To me MLF offers hope because we are a collective group of experts and professionals who work from a place of our own relationships to each other, working with integrity, honesty and transparency,” Sandhra told PressProgress.

“We aren’t afraid to look within ourselves as a community and externally to help shape culture in a meaningful way. I haven’t seen this sort of energy from others taking part in a similar way.” Jessie Sohpaul, a local artist and designer is another member of the Museum Liberation Force, who says the co-creation of a museum in the community is so important.

“As a South Asian Punjabi artist, in gallery spaces and museum spaces you often feel like an outsider in these spaces because they’re not spaces that you had a say in creating or in creating the programming around,” Sohpaul told PressProgress.

“You always feel like you lucked out when you get some sort of space there and it shouldn’t be about luck or tokenism.”

Sohpaul adds that being able to create something for the South Asian Canadian community means creating something “for us, by us.”

“When we get a chance to have our own museum, our own space, it’s exciting because you have a say in how it’s created, who is involved and you expect that space to reflect the community that you’re part of and so for me, I think that’s what’s really exciting about creating a museum that’s for our community,” Sohpaul said.

“Oftentimes these power structures create the narrative around our community and we know our community the best so it makes sense for us to drive this project.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport said the government is currently in the “second phase” of public engagement

“The first phase of public engagement for this museum or cultural centre began with a meeting with community leaders in April 2023 and the launch of a provincial website in the Fall of 2023 to raise awareness of this project and invite input from the public. The second phase, which includes community-led conversations, an online public survey, and the ability to provide online submissions will begin shortly,” the ministry spokesperson said in a statement to PressProgress.

The ministry says any future engagement “has been designed to be community led with multiple opportunities to share input, both in-person and virtually. The ultimate vision for the museum or cultural centre will be informed and shaped by the input received from interested and impacted people throughout B.C.”

In the meantime, the Museum Liberation Force has planned their own event on April 2 to engage the community on what they hope to see from the museum.

“Whether we discuss the term South Asian and its complexities, the location, the future, the whos, the whats, and the what nots — this needs to be driven by the community, not the systems in power that continue to dismiss and ignore us,” reads the event page.

Sohpaul adds that the event is to engage diverse members of the community to be able to detail the rich history of South Asian Canadians within the province.

“Just looking at the history that we’ve had as a community in BC, it’s a 100 plus year history and the fact that we don’t have a space that’s dedicated to our stories is pretty telling,” Sohpaul said. 

“We know the community better than the government would and we know exactly the type of voices and perspective we want to hear before we create a project like this, a museum like this.”

 

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Rumneek Johal
Reporter
Rumneek Johal is PressProgress' BC Reporter. Her reporting focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism.

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