Meet the Glenbow Museum’s First Director of Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary now has a Director of Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation, and she says taking on this role is humbling and essential for the museum industry.

Amber Shilling is Anishnaabe from Mnjikaning First Nation in Ontario on her father’s side. She was born and raised in Treaty 7 territory before completing her doctorate at the University of British Columbia in 2020.

There, she focused on how urban indigenous youth use technology to engage in culture and language.

Now Shilling is back in Calgary for the newly created position at Glenbow – where she would take field trips as a child – to help the museum reinvent what it means to respectfully engage with Indigenous communities.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to have such a critical role, I think, in reimagining what Glenbow can be in Calgary,” said Shilling.

“But also what it means to come to terms with the whole museum industry.”

Commitment and understanding

The Glenbow closed for three years starting in late August as major renovations began on the building and welcomed public comment on the project.

Part of this process involved consulting with Indigenous communities in Treaty 7 territory and across the country.

In August, Melanie Kjorlien, the museum’s chief operating officer and vice president of engagement, said the Glenbow wanted to ensure the communities whose culture is represented in its collections are actively involved.

And Shilling says this engagement helps foster an understanding of the complex relationship that Indigenous communities have with museums.

They were developed with a colonial mindset, that “blank gaze,” she says, and feature artifacts that have not been repatriated.

“Roles like these are desperately needed across galleries, libraries, archives, museums,” Shilling said.

“We really have to keep in mind that indigenous peoples have this self-determination and this right to tell their own story, to say what we have to say – in a proper way, in a respectful way. “

A visitor here

Shilling grew up in and around Calgary and attended nearby Strathmore High School. But she is still aware, she says, that she is a visitor here.

“I am an indigenous woman but… this is not my traditional territory. There are traditional custodians of this land,” said Shilling.

These guardians include the Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda and Métis Region 3.

Tarra Wright Many Chief is a consultant at the Glenbow Museum. (Terri Trembath / CBC)

For Shilling, that means her role within the museum – and reinventing its relationship with Indigenous communities – will begin collaboratively.

Rather than launching out with difficult ideas or a set agenda, the goal is to make indigenous peoples feel respected, enthusiastic and engaged, she said.

“The first thing for me is to reintroduce myself, to build new relationships – but also to reinvigorate the relationships I have with the people here,” Shilling said.

“And I need to hear… from members of the community what they feel is right.”

Museum consultant Tarra Wright Many Chief says she looks forward to Shilling’s inclusive approach.

“It will be a really amazing thing to see all of these different communities, with their diverse interests and the way they use the museum, come together,” she said.