Sunday, 15 April 2018

Manifesto for UK museum ethnography?

In my presentation at the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference last week, I included what one colleague has referred to as a manifesto. I don't know about others, but I am frustrated by both the structural limitations and the failure to consider seriously the rights and needs of Indigenous peoples by UK museums. I say that after two decades of trying to find ways to overcome the structural limitations.

Here are the specific calls to action I made in that presentation:

Maybe we could consider the following, within our own practice and within our own museums and professional bodies in the UK:
*formally acknowledge, in the MEG constitution, and in our respective institutional strategic plans, that museums have responsibilities to communities of origin as well as to objects
And maybe we could:
      Get grants to fund Indigenous teams to work with UK museums
      Use technology to increase Indigenous presence in museum governance and curation
      Do electronic fieldtrips for communities of origin 
      Have free MEG conference places for speakers from communities of origin
      Create more partnerships between UK museums and Indigenous communities
      Pay overseas Indigenous partners to write labels, select objects for display
      Work with the Haida Gwaii Museum to create an exhibition about repatriation and new relationships with museums internationally
      Discuss the difficult histories of objects on display
      Fund Indigenous scholars + interns to visit UK collections
      Reinvent loans as community research opportunities: maybe we could treat loans as always having community research components, and train couriers to facilitate those sessions, and work with overseas borrowing institutions to invite community members to learn from visiting collections

Beyond those immediate things, we need collectively to consider the really key questions and issues:
      How do we increase the presence, voice and authority of Indigenous peoples in UK museums?

      As museum professionals and representatives, how do we create more ‘active relations of reciprocity and dialogue’ [Clifford 2018] with communities of origin than we have now?

Friday, 13 April 2018

'Decolonise your budgets' and other reflections on the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference

What a lively and productive set of discussions it has been over the last few days at the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference as we worked through issues involved in 'decolonising the museum in practice.' So many interesting presentations: Claudia Augustat got us off to a great start by considering how staff are addressing the colonial past at the Weltmuseum in Vienna--where Hitler's balcony is on the next building over--in a currently rather right-wing Austria, and pointed out that one of the things museums need to decolonise is their budgets, so they can pay Indigenous partners and experts and support their communities in various ways. Rachel Minott gave a powerful account of curating the exhibition 'The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire,' which was led by an ethnic minority team. She noted the burden on Black and ethnic minority museum staff and how they often leave museums to work in arts organisations that don't carry the same historical legacies. JC Niala, an Oxford Master's student who kept turning up in my lectures all this year, gave a powerful presentation on a single photograph of her grandfather and issues of access and control over such materials.

There was a grounded set of approaches to the theme over the two days, with issues of voice, agency, power and representation at the fore. I was left with the sense that participants are grappling in honest ways with colonial legacies and feeling their ways into how to unpack and address these. And I am grateful for PRM director Laura Van Broekhoven's emotionally and intellectually honest approach to the complexities of the Pitt Rivers Museum, wondering in the final wrap-up session if the museum needs a space for those visitors who do not see the displays as inspiring, but raising legacies of violence and control, to process and clear emotions and other responses to the displays.

I note that the online Twitter critics earlier in the week were absent from these very productive discussions. Clearly, there is much to do to address colonial legacies in UK museums. In a spirit of hope, some of us have already begun to discuss those actions. One of them needs to be to let public audiences know what is happening in that direction, and then we need to do lots of other things. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

'Decolonising the Museum in Practice'

Over the next two days, the Pitt Rivers Museum will host over one hundred delegates for the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference. The theme of this year's conference is 'decolonising the museum in practice' and was chosen by colleagues who actually do want to change their practice. The conference comes after several in-house workshops earlier this year at which PRM staff reflected on legacies of colonialism affecting ethnographic museums in general and PRM in particular.

Pitt Rivers Museum

While many PRM staff have worked with collections in postcolonial ways over the years, most of that work has been behind the scenes and seldom articulated in the museum's famously Victorian-looking displays. We need to engage the public and the displays in the kind of work we've been doing with Indigenous and other communities of origin, and to shift the image of the museum as a colonial space. And as is typical in ethnographic museums, certain staff tend to manage these projects and associated relationships. The process over the past six months leading up to this conference has been different, involving a much broader range of staff engaging with difficult issues.

Learning involves making mistakes. We have already made some in this process: one of our long-standing and greatly respected Indigenous colleagues called us on the fact that we expected all conference delegates to pay registration fees. Given that we are trying to increase the involvement of Indigenous community members in the museum, we should have thought well ahead and found funding to pay speakers' registration fees to increase diversity. That is a lesson learned. I am looking forward to speaking about the Museum's long learning (and mistake-making!) process with Indigenous people at the conference and to the lively dialogue that this set of issues, in this particular context, will undoubtedly generate. 

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Haida weaver Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas visits ancestral collections in UK

I am so happy that the Origins and Futures Fund has been able to partner with the YVR Foundation this year to begin a bursary programme for visiting Indigenous researchers! Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas has been the inaugural scholar.

Over the past week, Lisa Hageman, an accomplished Haida weaver specializing in Raven’s Tail weaving, has been able to learn from a range of ancestral Haida items in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and British Museum. Supported by the Origins and Futures Fund at the University of Oxford, which supports bursaries for Indigenous researchers to visit heritage items, and the YVR Foundation’s Masterpiece Study Program for Indigenous researchers from British Columbia and the Yukon, Lisa viewed both woven and carved items. 

Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas with PRM staff member Nicholas Crowe examining naaxiin apron [PRM 1884.56.82], January 2018

Reflecting on the Pitt Rivers Museum part of the trip, Lisa said,

“This week, spent in intensive study of a wide range of ancestral pieces, from a naaxiin apron to my great-great-grandfather Charles Edenshaw’s engraved silver cane decoration, has been inspiring and laid the groundwork to begin expanding my current artistic practice into new areas. At the same time, it has strongly reminded me that the standard to which we contemporary artists must strive for is incredibly high.

Studying the naaxiin apron [PRM1884.56.82] in particular has reawakened in me the curiosity to explore the dying techniques that weavers employed. I am motivated to try dyeing with wolf moss to achieve the yellow colour on this dance apron. The wolf moss has been gifted to me by my great-aunt Dolores Churchill and I’ve been saving it for the right moment. The right time has now arrived.”

Dolores Churchill’s version of this apron has featured in many exhibitions and has become a very visible symbol of the determination to pass on naaxiin weaving techniques. Lisa worked with the apron for several days, and says: “This apron has particularly finely spun warp and weft. The weft looks to be the same as contemporary lace weight yarn; the only place that does not hold true are the two blue components which are a heavier weight.” She also noted that the apron did not have fur trim when it was made. 

Lisa credits the foundation blocks of her artistic practice to her early teachings by Dolores, Lisa's great grandmother Selina Peratrovich, cousins Holly Churchill and April Churchill and her tutelage under cousin Evelyn Vanderhoop as an adult.  The incredible teachings of Evelyn Vanderhoop and these other remarkable and gifted women allowed Lisa to forge her own path.  “I properly acknowledge and give my gratitude for the knowledge Evelyn and my Eagle relatives shared.  They allowed me to achieve my own successes with the tools they empowered me with.” Visiting with the ancestral pieces at the Pitt Rivers Museum has “further added to and strengthened my ongoing creative exploration. It has also reaffirmed that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.”

Working with these items across the week showed the complex, multi-layered research methodology that artists like Lisa bring to such work. With the objects in front of her, Lisa
engaged with her own experience, knowledge and practice. Museum staff also retrieved books and searched online to find comparative items in other collections. James Swanton’s ethnographic field notes were called up online to look up which families possessed certain crests. Conservators were brought in to the research space to consider whether strings used as riggings for masks had been re-spun by Haida women from commercial cotton fibre, and what kind of hair was used on one mask. 3D and infrared imaging were commissioned for several items, “so that when I’m not here I can continue to revisit the piece and continue to learn from it.”

In thinking about the week overall, and the experience of coming to Oxford to work with Haida ancestral treasures, Lisa noted, “historically, anthropologists, curators, museums and private collectors held Haida art in high esteem. To me it seems quite normal to have to come here: someone valued it enough to save it and thus we might learn from it and now these pieces might revisit the islands from which they originated.’

Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas is from Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. She wove the Chief’s Robe for Chief Idansuu (James Hart) and her latest robe will be installed in the Canadian High Commission in Paris in spring 2018. Her website is at:

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Strawberries and smoke

This summer, I was privileged to spend time with colleagues rehousing the human remains at the Museum’s off-site storage facility. This was necessary as part of the move of collections out of that facility, and also in preparation for repatriating ancestral remains, which we have taken the decision to do. We were working with crania from across North America, many of them culturally modified. Some of them have been at Oxford for centuries. My colleagues and I removed each cranium from its box, enhanced the museum record for the individual, and placed each one in a new box, cushioned with acid-free tissue.

Before we began this work, I responded to requests from Indigenous colleagues and spoke to the spirits of the ancestors. I told them who we were, what we were going to do with them, and why. I told them that their people loved them very much and that we would try to make it possible for them to go home. I thanked them for teaching us as museum professionals and said that we would send food to them through the fire. I used the right to smudge that was transferred to me by Blackfoot ceremonial people and smudged the space to cleanse it. Later, we lit a small barbecue and drawing on Haida cultural ways, sent traditional North American Indigenous foods to the spirits through the fire: wild rice, salmon, maple sugar, wild strawberries.

University Health and Safety was not initially happy with the idea of smudging or food burning. They had never seen it before, and had ideas of billowing smoke inside the storage area and wafting around Oxford. In the end we invited them to be present, and they were incredibly moved and helpful. Everyone learns from these opportunities.

It felt odd to do these ceremonies without Indigenous colleagues present. I am wary of cultural appropriation, and do not do such things unless there has been a direct request to do so and no way to bring Indigenous people over to do such work. In this situation, I was able to consult with several colleagues from across North America beforehand, and then drew on long experience and teaching from several Indigenous mentors to smudge and send food to the ancestors. The process made me feel more than ever that we need stronger bridges between UK museums and Indigenous communities. Repatriation is one way to build those, and we are now researching the origins of as many remains as possible so they might some day go home.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Great Box goes home

Recently, I attended a potlatch on Haida Gwaii in which a respected activist, artist and political leader stepped into the clan chieftainship of the Ravens of Skedans. Although I have worked with Haida people since 1998 and made many trips to Haida Gwaii, I had never before had the opportunity of attending a potlatch. And while anthropology lecturers at Oxford have taught about “the potlatch” for over a century, based on anthropological literature, none had ever been invited to attend a potlatch as a witness. So I went to “honor the invitation,” as the Haida say; I went to show respect for the man who has become Chief Gidansta and his family; I went to renew relationships with many Haida people; and I went to see the new version of the Great Box, the Great Box’s child, being used in a potlatch, as it was originally meant to be used.

In anthropological terms, a potlatch is an event involving a change in status or identity: a wedding, a funeral, an adoption, becoming a chief. The host clan invites, feasts and presents gifts to guests, who witness the business conducted and not only provide collective support for it but are also responsible afterwards to witness and affirm the identity of the person(s) at the centre of the business. In my case, I affirm that Guujaaw is now Chief Gidansta, and I was with about a thousand people who saw it done, so it’s true. The host clan’s specific crests are displayed and affirmed, told through stories and dance and song, reminding people which crests belong to that clan. A totem pole, also with the clan’s specific crests, may be carved and raised to commemorate the event. History is re-told in art and dance, and added to.

I had been told that the Great Box’s child would feature in the potlatch in some way. As a curator, I see masterpiece-level Haida art sitting on shelves, held motionless in displays by elaborate supports, or wrapped in tissue paper in acid-free boxes. I’ve learned that when such items are performed by Haida people—old masks brought to the face and danced, ancient hats worn on the head, gambling sticks used to gamble with—something very special happens. This was initially a source of tension (as a curator, aren’t I supposed to keep things physically safe?), but I’ve had excellent Haida teachers, and have learned to treasure these magical moments when long-dormant treasures come to life. Those moments of cultural renewal and continuity are precisely what the 1884 revisions to the Indian Act that made the potlatch illegal, tried to kill. The historic Great Box was removed from Haida Gwaii, along with nearly every other masterpiece-level treasure, during the years of missionisation, assimilation policies, and residential schools. That’s how most of those ancestral treasures that I see sitting on shelves got to Oxford. Those rare, magical moments when items are danced, when they move, when they are lovingly held by Haida people, affirm that although hearts were often broken during those years, Haida culture was not. If it went quiet, like the masks on shelves, it has been woken again and is dancing.

What happens when a long-absent masterpiece comes home? And what, I wondered, would happen when it was used in a potlatch, mending part of the rupture in Haida cultural history that the collection of the historic box, its removal from Haida Gwaii, was part of?

The new box sat in front of the chiefs’ table, beside the podium and near an ancient clan box borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York for the occasion. It was flanked by coppers, witnessing and framing the events, placing this potlatch within an ongoing history of potlatches by the host clan. Front and center in the action, the Great Box’s riveting design was echoed by the designs on the chief’s seat and the banner behind the chief’s table, taken from sibling boxes identified by Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw as having been made by the same artist. The meal was served to the chiefs by host clan members who made their way around the box, carrying plates and coffee pots and water jugs. People came up during lulls in the action and visited with chiefs, admired the boxes, took pictures; occasionally someone came and spent a long time going around every side of the box, mesmerized. At the pivotal moment in the ceremony, the new box was used as it was meant to be: as a box of treasures, from which the new chief’s regalia was unpacked by his family as they lovingly dressed him during that moment of transformation.

It was where the historic box was meant to be, if it had not been removed from Haida Gwaii. The new box sat, powerful and beautiful, between chiefs and coppers and dancers, hearing Haida language and song, watching the aunties visit, admiring the excellent pies, smelling seafood. At one point, a toddler being given her Haida name danced to her naming song in front of it, bouncing up and down in a room filled with love and happiness. The Great Box took it all in. There was no hole in the room where it should have been. The Great Box’s child has come home.

The Great Box Project through which the new box was made was funded, in part, by UK research funding, for which I have to monitor the impact of research on the public. Impact is defined as "the demonstrable contributions that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations," which can include "influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour," and "capacity building through technical and personal skill development."  

While I don’t have any difficulty with the concept of accounting for the use of public funds, I do wonder how to describe the impact of the Great Box’s return in such terms. Where does “mending ruptures caused by colonial processes” fit in such discourse? How would we measure it? How does bringing such a masterpiece home and using it as it was intended to be used fit into such registers of language? How do we translate the concepts of healing and cultural strength into “benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations”?

I am struggling to find the right words. Whether I find them or not, my respect goes out to the Ravens of Skedans and to Gidansta and his family for their generous hosting at this most extraordinary feast, and to artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw for creating such an extraordinary work. Haawa’a, haawa’a, haawa’a.

The new Great Box being admired at the potlatch, March 2017. Photographer: Laura Peers.

Impact is defined at: