Wednesday, 17 October 2012

First words



I am the curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum for the Americas collections, from one pole to the other. I work with Native American and First Nations peoples and objects and histories. The Americas collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum include amazing historical material--a wampum belt that might come from Pocahantas' father, Powhatan; the earliest canoe model from the east coast; Inupiat items from the first British journey through the Northwest Passage. Caring for them--curating--involves a lot of sensitive issues: how to create access to heritage items for overseas communities; repatriation; the politics of cross-cultural research; addressing the legacy of collections acquired under varying forms of colonial duress. It has involved creating bridges between the Museum’s extraordinary historic collections and the communities they come from. We are trying to provide access to material heritage for communities who need to work with it to strengthen their cultural identity in the present. We're also trying to learn more about the collections so that we can take better care of them and inform visitors.

Sometimes Indigenous delegations come to the Museum to work with collections; sometimes we bring objects closer to their communities as loans. Sometimes I go to Haida and Blackfoot and Ojibwe and Haudenosaunee communities in North America to ask for help and to show people what is in the collection. Sometimes we provide access to collections digitally, either as photographs on Flickr or as a live video link. We are always looking for new ways to provide access. We’re looking for ways to bring the knowledge they want to share about the collections to our other audiences in the Museum as well.

Occasionally, during visits by Indigenous researchers, they have invited my colleagues and I to dance with them. The objects we’ve been working with are placed gently to one side of the room and the entire research building resonates with drums, song, and dance. This is a magical place, and it’s an extraordinary job. I look forward to telling you about it in this blog. This is just my voice, not The Museum’s, nor any of my colleagues’, nor that of any of the Indigenous people I have worked with (all of whom would surely tell things very differently). It’s just me, in a state of wonderment, looking around at this extraordinary space, thinking of all the extraordinary opportunities it offers. This is an inspiring space, but one which often feels strange as well as amazing. I look forward to sharing it with you. 

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