Monday, 8 April 2013

Things we have learned from the Blackfoot Shirts Project

Detail, Blackfoot shirt 1893.67.1, Pitt Rivers Museum. 
The membrane under the quill wrapping is visible in the centre of the image.

Today I’m giving a talk to colleagues here at the Pitt Rivers Museum about the Blackfoot Shirts Project. Since most of them have been part of the project—indeed in many ways it has been their project more than mine, I just write the grants and give the occasional shove—there actually isn’t much about it that they don’t know. So, I thought I would talk about what we all learned from the project, in different ways.

For those of you who haven’t been following this, the Blackfoot Shirts Project in a nutshell is: a group of us brought 5 hide and quill and hairlock shirts, collected in 1841, from Oxford back to museums in Blackfoot country, and invited 500 Blackfoot people to touch them. Not surprisingly, amazing things happened, and we are still thinking about responses to the shirts. You can learn more about the project at:

So what did we learn?

Firstly, by spending a lot of time preparing the shirts for travel and then looking at them closely with Blackfoot people, we learned about the shirts: that some of the decorative material is not porcupine quill but bulrush, for instance. We learned about paints and dyes (who knew that blue was from duck poop?). We realized that the quill wrappings on the hairlocks are done over a foundation of some kind of membrane which is slipped over the bundles of hair: pericardium? Vein? We realized that there are the long-dead carcasses of nits still clinging to the hairs. And we realized that the shirts’ histories, before and after collection, are there to be seen: coal dust from the Hopkins’ home, tack marks from being stuck to the walls, bits of red ochre on the inside from contact with men painted for spiritual protection.

We tend to see the surface of objects in museums. It’s only when you spend this much time and energy really, really looking hard that you see beyond that, to the processes of making and storing and displaying that make up an object’s histories.

And we learned that these are not ‘objects’: they are also material forms of spirits, of those who made and used them, and those whose physical bodies are present in the hides, sinew, quills and hair. For Blackfoot people, these are ancestors, not museum specimens.

Having learned this, we think differently about the shirts now that they are back at PRM. We have a stronger sense of stewardship and of Blackfoot people as having ties to the shirts: we feel accountable. We have realized that just because objects enter museums, their lives don’t stop. They can go out and have adventures. One of these very old, very rare, very fragile shirts was used in a ceremony while we were in Alberta. We realized that it might have acquired some sacred paint during the ceremony, and we decided that if that was the case, we would not think of it as damage: it would be a mark of the shirt’s ongoing life. For a museum, that’s learning quite a bit.

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