Monday, 29 April 2013

The (Blackfoot) ancestors, teaching at Oxford

Since opening the exhibition Visiting with the Ancestors: the Blackfoot Shirts Project in late March, something very special has been happening at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Actually, many special things have been happening.

Visitors are actually working their way all around the room, reading all the exhibition texts and looking at the images and labels. (This is not supposed to happen: museum visitors tend to look at labels for no more than about 30 seconds, and they don’t generally read all of the text in an exhibition.) They are also spending longer in the exhibition than is usual for our temporary exhibitions.

They are also looking closely at the shirts themselves, and at the other objects in the exhibition: the legging, the new shirt, the students’ art work in response to the shirts, and the new quillwork.

Then they are also writing in the visitor comment book. I’m going to have to get a second comment book, because the first one is nearly full. The last panel of the exhibit asks, ‘what do you think about this project?’ and visitors really are telling us. Comments range from ‘the shirts are cool’ to ‘Please send them home.’ People are writing entire pages of comments, and leaving their email addresses. This week, a visitor added suggested readings in her comments, and also inserted a page in the book with reading suggestions. Visitors are responding to earlier visitor comments: there is dialogue going on in the book.

In my experience this is unusual. I am also surprised by the level of support voiced for the project, for Blackfoot people and heritage, and for the idea of visits of important objects home. I’ll transcribe some of the comments here soon, and we are now doing some serious visitor experience analysis, and interviews with visitors. What we’ve seen so far has been both intriguing and heart-warming.

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