Monday, 4 July 2016

Uneven consultation

Museum anthropologists always look for the politics in the relations between museums and indigenous peoples, the relations of power, what is unsaid as well as what is said. In the last few weeks, there have been several articles in Canadian media sources about B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s call for the return of objects to BC. The most recent ones [] clarified that the Haida nation was not consulted about this call before it went out. The reason that the Haida Nation was deliberately excluded from Clark’s ‘consultation’ process on the repatriation issue is because Clark supports oil and gas development, and the Haida oppose it. Clark’s dramatic call for returns of heritage materials, and ‘consultation’ process, is a means of building an Aboriginal support base in BC despite her intent to proceed with oil and gas development that would permanently damage lands and resources on which Aboriginal people depend for survival. It might also be seen as an attempt to build a support base of non-Aboriginal people who would then dismiss Aboriginal concerns about energy and sovereignty (‘what else do they want? We’ve given them their stuff back!’).

The Haida Nation has the best track record for repatriation of all Aboriginal nations in Canada; they have brought home nearly 500 ancestral remains. They have done so in a thoughtful, respectful way that has enabled them to build constructive bridges with museums. Other Aboriginal nations, and the Province, would benefit from working with the Haida Repatriation Committee to discuss their experience ( Museums and Indigenous peoples can work together productively around repatriation: as I have learned, largely from Haida people, everyone benefits from such relationships. Repatriation is necessary in many cases. Getting material heritage circulating through loans is also necessary: many Aboriginal communities don’t have facilities to care permanently for material heritage, but access can be provided in many ways. And whatever stance one might take on the oil/gas industry, access to heritage items is too important to Aboriginal survival to be caught up in this kind of political game.

If Premier Clark is serious about providing access to material heritage held in museums outside the country for Aboriginal peoples, I would invite her office to consider funding the first loan from UK museums to the Haida Gwaii Museum. There are important early historic collections of Haida material heritage in the UK, and we need to find a way to make them accessible to Haida people. To get rolling, this project will need between £15-20K to pay for standard loan fees (c.£6K to Haida Gwaii), a new case for the Haida Gwaii Museum that provides enhanced environmental controls and security for international loans, and time and costs for a museum staff member to stay for a few weeks and facilitate handling sessions out of case before placing the item on display. Once the program is up and running, it will be much less expensive to run. Objects can be rotated every few years and can provide access to the tens of thousands of B.C. Aboriginal artefacts in museums around the world, while strengthening relationships between those nations and museums to improve public interpretation. 

Everyone needs access to material heritage. Let’s find creative solutions that strengthen relationships in the process.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Great Box Project wins a prize!

So excited to say that the Great Box Project has won an inaugural University of Oxford Vice Chancellor's Award for Public Engagement with Research! We won in the 'collaboration' category, as the project linked Haida people in designing the project and its outcomes.

Part of the work that museum anthropology does is linking collections and the communities that the collections came from—and showing to the public, and to one’s own institution, why such reconnections matter, how they benefit us all. It’s really nice to have some recognition from the University of Oxford that this kind of work does matter in a university context.

And it’s a jolly great project!

Professor Laura Peers wins Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research 2016

The Pitt Rivers Museum is delighted to announce that Professor Laura Peers has won a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research. These awards, inaugurated in early 2016 and announced on 1 July 2016, recognise and reward those who undertake high-quality public engagement with research and have contributed to building capacity in this area. Professor Peers won an award in the Project category with the outstanding Great Box project, a partnership project with the Haida Gwaii Museum and artists Jaalen Edenshaw and Gwaii Edenshaw. Further information about the award 

Thursday, 28 April 2016

A moose-hide banyan?

A hide coat in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum has been sparking a great deal of interest lately. Obtained from a local Oxford dealer of 'antiquities' in 1906, this amazing coat is in what we believe is traditionally tanned moose-hide, with stylised painted designs around the hem, porcupine quillwork on the back, and a flamboyant wool brocade facing.
PRM 1906.83.1

PRM 1906.83.1 back

The coat is cut in a style reminiscent of a banyan, a type of garment brought back to Britain from India in the eighteenth century and popularized as a comfortable, warm indoor garment.

This makes it a garment of multiple cultural affiliations. Did a British man bring a cloth banyan to Hudson’s Bay and have it reworked in hide for wearing inside a cold, drafty fur post? The coat’s quillwork and moose-hide remind us of the cross-cultural marriages and creative hybridity at the heart of fur trade society in what is now Canada.

To better understand the coat’s cut and its relationship to other European men’s garments of the early 19th century, PRM has had several students with textile and fashion expertise create a pattern from the original garment. The latest version, by Charlotte Linton, has refined earlier attempts and will now be duplicated so that we can send the pattern to costume experts and to First Nations seamstresses. Cross-cultural objects require cross-cultural research methodologies!

Sewing pattern for PRM 1906.83.1 by Charlotte Linton

 As part of this process of learning, the banyan has been studied by the Object Lives group, a scholarly network which focuses on objects that move across cultural boundaries. Our blog post about the coat, and the Object Lives website, can be found here. We’ll be thinking about it again next week at a group research session in Montreal, as we prepare a virtual exhibition from the group’s collaborative, multinational, cross-cultural approach to exciting objects such as this.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Haida reflections on Haida art: Oxford lecture by Nika Collison and Gwaai Edenshaw

I'm delighted to say that this year's Canada Seminar at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford will be given by Nika Collison and Gwaai Edenshaw on 12 February. Nika, who is the curator at the excellent Haida Gwaii Museum, and Gwaai, artist and co-creator of the new 'Great Box,' will be reflecting on Haida art.

Lady Margaret Hall has in its art collection a print by renowned Haida artist Bill Reid. Nika is Bill's granddaughter, and Gwaai was Bill's final apprentice. They will both offer thoughts on Bill Reid, on Haida art, and (I hope) on the wonderful support they have offered to the Pitt Rivers Museum over the years.

Staff, students and visitors at the Pitt Rivers Museum have learned so much from working with Haida people over the years. I am very grateful that Gwaai and Nika are able to come to Oxford to give the seminar and to continue their work here. This is, I think, the first time that First Nations people have given the lecture and it should be a very special evening.

Please join us!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Haida treasures in museums, Haida treasures on loan

This image shows the Star House frontal pole from Masset, Haida Gwaii, in the Pitt Rivers Museum last week, together with a projected digital image of the pole in situ before its removal from Masset. 

[Historic photograph PRM 1998.473.1, by Bertram Buxton. Masset, Haida Gwaii, 
Canada, 1882; image of photograph in Pitt Rivers Museum by Laura Peers]

Museum staff added the digital projector to the Clore Learning Balcony in the Museum’s main space some years ago, and we use this and other images when we have special events for tours, special lectures and school groups. It helps to explain something of the original contexts and meanings of the pole, and to discuss the importance of the Haida collections in the Museum and the Museum’s relationships with Haida communities today.

While this image helps to make those links, its the juxtaposition with the pole and the visual spectacle of the museum space also underscores the removal of the pole and its presence in a museum collection. The historic displays in the Pitt Rivers Museum can evoke colonial histories very easily. We don’t want to celebrate those histories: we want to comment on them and critique them.

We are also conscious that Museum staff and visitors are privileged to be able to view and take inspiration from extraordinary Haida ancestral treasures, and that most Haida people cannot do the same. While we welcome Haida delegations periodically, and have put images of all 301 Haida treasures in the collections online, we know—and regret—that most Haida people will never make it to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Nor will they be able to view the tens of thousands of historic Haida treasures in museums across the UK and Europe. Online collections are a start, but they don’t work for carvers, weavers and other makers who need to see details that are seldom photographed, and for whom photography flattens the 3-dimensional realities of objects. As Haida master carver Christian White pointed out to us some years ago, you can’t tell the depth of carving from a photograph.

People have both a right and a need to access their material heritage. In the case of Indigenous people, access to material heritage is crucial to maintaining culture, to strengthening identity, and to survival. Not being able to have access to material heritage is a continuation of colonial relations of power. If museums are socially responsible institutions, they need to be responsible to communities of origin as well as to local audiences, and they need to create greater access to material heritage for those communities.

I am therefore pleased to say that the Pitt Rivers Museum is working with the Haida Gwaii Museum, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, to prepare for loans from UK collections to Haida Gwaii. It would be a huge step toward access to get Haida objects circulating through the Haida Gwaii Museum every few years, to provide continual inspiration and learning for Haida people. It will certainly benefit all the museums involved. There are many UK museums with significant collections of Haida treasures and we will be inviting them to participate in this program.

This will be expensive and we will have to fundraise: it currently costs about £6,000 to get one object from the UK to Vancouver, and then there is an additional journey by air, ferry and truck to the Haida Gwaii Museum. Given airline schedules, we will have to break the journey in Vancouver, so the partnership with MOA is key, and will give MOA the opportunity to stage events with Haida people living in the Vancouver area. We will be asking couriers to facilitate guided hands-on sessions for small groups of Haida people in Vancouver and Haida Gwaii before they place items in display cases: it will take specially-trained couriers to do that, and UK museums will have to learn how to do so. We will probably have to fundraise for a special, secure case for the Haida Gwaii Museum to satisfy international lending criteria involving security, humidity and temperature.

We will all benefit from this: UK museums will learn from Haida people and share information to audiences in the UK, Haida people will learn from ancestral treasures, and we will strengthen ties between communities. Are you interested in being part of this project, or in supporting it in some way? Please contact me at:

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Ceremony to release a robe from the loom

One of the many things I love about Haida culture is the appreciation of finely made works of art. Evelyn Vanderhoop, a master weaver, has finished a robe in the Naaxiin style, a replica of an old Haida robe now in the museum in Victoria, B.C. It is the only robe she knows of (and she is a serious researcher, having visited many museum collections to examine old robes) that features a box design on it, so I talked with her about the piece during my recent trip to Haida Gwaii.

The community is having a ceremony to release the robe from the loom, and dance it into the Haida world, before the robe leaves for the purchaser's home in the United States. The ceremony will be held at the Haida Gwaii Museum, reminding us also that museums can play central roles in communities, cherishing and making material heritage accessible.

I wish I could attend the ceremony, and want to say congratulations to Evelyn on the completion of a masterpiece.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Visiting the Great Box at home

Haida Gwaii, July 2016. Photograph by Laura Peers.

When there are long-term, established relationships between museums and communities, grant-funded projects enable both partners to fulfil key goals, take things in new directions, and spend time together to renew and strengthen ties. The Great Box project is a wonderful example of this.

The Haida Nation and the Pitt Rivers Museum have worked together since 1998, and formalized their relationship in 2009 with the visit of a very large Haida delegation to PRM to work with all 301 Haida objects and establish permanent relationships around the collection for mutual benefit. In 2010, PRM returned an ancestral remain to Haida Gwaii. Artists have come to PRM each year to learn from the collections and to teach Museum staff. Educational programmes at PRM have benefited tremendously from input by Haida curators and artists over the years.

Gwaai and Jaalen asked to do the Great Box project to learn from the historic artist and take that knowledge home with the new version of the box. The new box was shipped home for completion in October 2014 and immediately sparked many conversations amongst artists. It was also used to teach box design to high school students, and a formal unveiling event was held for it at the Haida Gwaii Museum in March. It has been on display there since.

With support from the ESRC Knowledge Exchange Dialogues fund and Linacre College, I was able to visit the box at home in Haida Gwaii last month, and catch up with Jaalen, Gwaai and other Haida friends and colleagues. Jaalen and I did a presentation to community members in the inspiring Performance Space of the Kay Llnagaay HeritageCentre adjacent to the Haida Gwaii Museum. Many people made the hour-long drive from Masset to see the box again and to discuss what we had learned from the project.

Laura Peers (R) and Jaalen Edenshaw (at R by box) in discussion with community members about the
Great Box project, July 2015. Photograph by Geoff Horner.

I also worked with Nika Collison, curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum, to begin planning another series of projects that comes out of the Great Box: an exhibition and book about Haida traditions of box-making. Nika kindly asked many community members if they would talk to me about this and I spent much of my time on island having great discussions with extremely knowledgeable people, from senior artists to a man who makes bentwood box coffins for community members to a woman who brought box-making into a program for youth. Everyone was extremely supportive of taking the project into these directions, and we also talked about how to make the process most useful for Haida artists. We hope to find funding also to hold workshops associated with this next step in which people can view historic boxes, talk about what makes great box design, and actually make boxes. The project needs to fulfil community needs and goals to take the relationship forward. There are many ways such activities would also benefit both museums involved.

We also talked about the major implication to come ‘out of the box’ from the Great Box project: the need for more artists to have direct access to more historic treasures so that this scale and depth of knowledge repatriation can happen. That’s what I’ll talk about next.