Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A tough audience

(image from Helen Mears' blog post for the Museum Ethnographers' Group, on the Future of the Ethnographic Museum conference at Oxford; see

This is one of the more challenging professional moments I have faced in a long time: me, and about 50 other museum professionals, crammed into the Visiting with the Ancestors (Blackfoot Shirts Project) exhibition at the Pitt Rivers at the start of the Future of the Ethnographic Museum conference recently. 

My audience included just about everybody who might write and publish about the PRM in the next decade: colleagues from all across Europe and the UK, delegates from around the world (Israel, Brazil, New Zealand, North America...) and luminaries James Clifford and Ruth Phillips. I had designed the exhibition knowing that it would be up during the conference and that this moment would come, but I have to say it was a great relief to finally face it and receive positive feedback.

There are many special things about the exhibition. One is that its themes and content came from Blackfoot mentors. We were actually planning a book about the project when we met with them in 2011 to ask what they wanted it to say and what tone and format they would prefer; I simply pulled the outline for the book into 3-D for the exhibition.

The exhibit tells the story of the project, of why we took the shirts back to Alberta, of the processes involved in building relationships with Blackfoot people, of what happened when the shirts returned and people were able to learn from them, of how the project changed the museum profession in the UK, and of how Blackfoot people feel now that the shirts are back in Oxford. There are three of the shirts in the centre of the room, and around the walls we have quotes from participants, photographs of every stage of the process (including one of the crate holding the shirts, painted bright pink for visibility, on the tarmac at Heathrow), and a wonderful video about the project's impact in Blackfoot communities by Narcisse Blood.

It was gratifying to see my colleagues respond to an exhibition about a project process. It was especially gratifying because another special thing about this exhibition is that PRM staff did it in-house. We didn't have the budget to hire an external designer, so we designed it ourselves, took courses on graphic design, found suppliers to print the text, and physically installed it ourselves (thanks Alan and Chris!). 

It's been an amazing thing to see the ancestors teaching yet another audience, and inspiring museum staff here at PRM--and around the world--to learn and develop.

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