In the wake of Captain James Cook’s arrival on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1778, a flood of First Nations objects was taken away by Europeans and later by Americans and Canadians. In the early 20th century, American ethnographer G. T. Emmons, for example, spent most of his life researching and documenting the lives of Pacific Northwest First Nations and amassed vast collections of artifacts, from everyday tools to ceremonial masks, that he shipped to museums and institutions around the world. One of these items was a Coast Salish ceremonial rattle that was sent to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, in England, in 1934.

Made of mountain sheep horn and mountain goat wool, the rattle was a very rare object, used during potlatches and naming ceremonies, and was likely 100 years old when Emmons found it.

Despite its importance to their heritage, however, no Coast Salish knew where that rattle ended up. Their connection to it, and the cultural knowledge it represented, was lost.

“There are lots of examples like this,” says Susan Rowley, a curator at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. She estimates that millions of ethnological and archaeological artifacts were removed from First Nations land in British Columbia. How would members of a remote First Nation know where to look for lost elements of their heritage, asks Rowley, and even if they were able to locate an object at, say, a museum in England, how would they get there to see it first-hand?

The virtual world held a solution. In 2005, the Museum of Anthropology partnered with three Vancouver-area First Nations to build the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN), a social media-style website where photos and descriptions of artifacts can be displayed, studied and discussed. The site launched in 2010, and today, there are more than 430,000 items from 19 museums and institutions throughout the world available at www.rrncommunity.org.

“It’s not just a one-way flow of information,” says Rowley. “Individuals are teaching researchers about the traditional meaning and purpose of the artifacts.” The RRN’s 1,200-plus registered users range from researchers to artists. From his home in Chilliwack, B.C., Salish carver Stan Greene logs on to view historic masks and artwork housed in places such as Washington, D.C. Any RRN member can comment or add information, such as the names of people in photos or, in the Stó:lo Nation’s case, sound bites and film clips. The Stó:lo are adding the names of objects in their traditional Halkomelem language and are linking audio recordings to online images.

While the RRN’s focus is on northwestern First Nations, the network has also helped Inuvialuit from the Mackenzie River delta access a collection of their artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and has collaborated with museums in Nova Scotia to provide the province’s Mi’kmaq access to more than 400 objects. The Inuvialuit, for their part, have created a website, Inuvialuit Living History, to share information about their artifacts; the site features videos and interviews with elders.

Overall, this collaborative environment “represents a real turn in the relationship between museums and aboriginal people,” says Dave Schaepe, director/senior archaeologist at the Stó:lo Research and Resource Management Centre, in Chilliwack. It creates an opportunity for virtual repatriation and “builds comfort in the community. In some cases, it’s OK that objects are housed elsewhere, as long as we know they are being treated properly.”

The RRN also redefines the notion of a museum as a place of storage and exhibition to a place for the interactive sharing of knowledge. “It changes the nature of a museum from a dead place to a living place,” says Schaepe. “It brings the here and now to the past, and it explains why we have museums in the present.”