Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Dancing in (and outside) the Museum

Haida dancers on lawn outside Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University
Museum of Natural History, September 2009. Photograph by Drew Davey.

In September 2009, the Pitt Rivers Museum was delighted to host a visit by nearly two dozen members of the Haida Nation, whose homeland is Haida Gwaii, a group of islands between Vancouver Island and Alaska. The Museum’s collections include a magnificent totem pole and some 300 other objects from Haida Gwaii. We wanted to learn more about these objects and to provide access to them for Haida people, and we hoped to create a permanent relationship with the Haida Nation around the collections to address these needs.
The visit was overwhelming. Few research visits of that scale have ever occurred, and retrieving, photographing, conserving, and updating records for 300 objects was a huge task. It was a great success, despite its challenges, and one of my abiding memories of the visit is of Haida song and dance, and of Haida drums echoing through the museum and across the front lawn. Music and dance have been an important focus for reclaiming cultural practices on Haida Gwaii after the decades of assimilation policies. Haida delegates wanted very much to share their culture through dance performances, and we created several opportunities: a potluck supper for the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and public events held on the lawn outside the Natural History Museum. Dance also occurred in the research rooms with some of the objects that we were all looking at: a salmon dance wand, with moveable jaws, was danced gently with its appropriate songs. I will remember the ‘clack, clack’ that the jaws of the salmon wand made for the rest of my life.
Museum staff usually see objects lying motionless. To see dance wands, button blankets, headdresses and masks in action adds a special dimension to our understanding of the objects we care for, and reminds us that they belong to living traditions. For members of the public in Oxford to whom the totem pole is a much-loved part of the Museum, seeing and listening to Haida people was the first opportunity that most had ever had to experience some of the cultural context for the pole. It was also a reminder that the pole belongs to the Museum in some ways, but continues to belong to Haida people in other ways.
Part of maintaining a permanent relationship involves simply keeping in touch, and several of us at the Museum are Facebook friends with Haida people whom we met during that visit in 2009. Over the past few months, there have been two major earthquakes on Haida Gwaii, of 7.7 and 7.2 magnitude, with numerous serious aftershocks. As I read the anxious postings of Haida friends, and then the reassurances they sent each other that all was well, I was reminded both of how fragile human societies are, and of how strong.
Haida friends, we are thinking of you, all the way over here in Oxford.

A video made about the Haida visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum, ‘Everything was Carved,’ is available on our website and is also available on Vimeo.
You can see photographs of the Haida collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
You can also search on the Museum’s database for ‘Haida’.

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