Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Visitor Evaluation in the Blackfoot Shirts Project Exhibition: Reflections, by Cherry Jackson

Map of visitor movements in the exhibition

Very soon, we'll start analysing the layers of data we have gathered from visitors to the Blackfoot Shirts Project exhibition at PRM. As you can see from this map, we've been interested to know how much information visitors take away with them, how much of the exhibition they experience, read and view, whether they watched Narcisse Blood's video (they did!), and what they thought when they left. Since we had over 35,000 visitors to the exhibition, we were able to work with a selection of these, of all ages and backgrounds. Thank you to Eliana Ritts, a student in the Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology degree, who designed the evaluation, and Cherry Jackson, an Archaeology and Anthropology undergraduate, who did most of the work with visitors. Student power!

I asked Cherry to reflect on her experiences. Here are her thoughts:

"Now that the exhibition has ended, it gives me the chance of providing an overview of my time doing visitor evaluation of the exhibition during August 2013. This involved me sitting just outside the exhibit on those long wooden benches, mapping the movements of those who dared to venture in, or mobbing whichever unlucky person I had decided I wanted to interview on the way out.

Apart from getting cold (that exhibition space is freezing, unlike the rest of the museum) I really enjoyed watching how people used the space and their reactions to what was in front of them. I weirdly managed to interview loads of North Americans with a great in depth knowledge of the Blackfoot people! You got some…erm…different reactions. Most went on about how cool the shirts were, but there was one man who said they were hideous. It was very hard not to say, “Well, I think you’re wrong!” Or words to that effect.

When I told my friends what I was doing, those who were on the same course as me didn’t bat an eyelid, but others found the mapping of movements a little creepy. And it kind of is, but at the same time it was really, REALLY revealing. It’s amazing to see how much objects control use of space to a few pathways. Although this is a generalisation, people either moved around the exhibition in a clockwise fashion, looking at the boards and ignoring the shirts, or zigzagged between the shirts and ignored the boards. It seemed weird not to look at both; how can understand what you see without reading the information, and how can you understand the information without seeing what you’re reading about? But nevermind!

Anyway, I also went to see a Native American exhibition in Manchester, and they used similar features to the PRM, with quotes on the walls and a video. However, you couldn’t see the coats from every angle in the Manchester Museum exhibition, and one coat was stretched out like a dead animal hide, not a living being. And they had way more interactive features. And it was bright orange.

I think the PRM did it better (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) because it had the Blackfoot people’s voices everywhere; it was more their exhibit than the curators’. And people really responded to that. How would I feel if I couldn’t access objects of great importance to my culture? Who owns what? What is ownership? Are museums outposts of colonialism and voyeurism?

These questions swam through my mind and I really don’t know the answers quite yet. If you visited the exhibition, I hoped you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t you can read about it on this blog and on the PRM’s website."

Monday, 2 September 2013

Visiting with the Ancestors: Saying Farewell

Heather Richardson and Andrew Hughes, PRM Conservators, gently folding one of the Blackfoot shirts as the exhibition is dismantled.

I am very sad that the Blackfoot Shirts exhibition has ended. Since February I have enjoyed watching visitors in the exhibition and reading their comments: many comments are unusually long for visitor book comments, thoughtful, and reflecting the emotional qualities of the quotes and photographs. It has been gratifying to see the project having an impact on people in Britain and around the world (our visitorship is international). It has also been a steadying influence for me to see the ancestors many times a day. The exhibition space is visible from the main staircase in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and on the main corridor between the stairs and the tearoom and staff entrance, so every day I have walked past the gallery and paused to acknowledge the ancestors and the work they are doing. It has been such a blessing to work on this project, and as I pass the shirts, I say thank you to the ancestors, every single time. They also remind me—with their intense physical and spiritual presence—that they are sacred objects and that there are Blackfoot protocols for behavior around sacred objects.  If I have been angry or frustrated, just a glimpse of the shirts has made me think about that, and let go of it and be calmer and grateful as I move past them. Those of us who work across cultures are changed by the experiences, by what we learn from others. Sometimes I have sat on the bench outside the gallery and just taken in their presence, and on occasion I have asked for their strength and help on a really tough day. I’m going to miss seeing them.

And hearing them. Narcisse Blood’s video, an important part of the exhibition, includes the voices of Blackfoot friends and family and mentors, as well as Alison Brown and myself reflecting on the project. There’s an honor song sung by Troy Twigg; Narcisse’s gentle voice speaking in Blackfoot to the ancestors; Ramona Bighead and Delia Crosschild reflecting on the project; and many giggling high school students. The sound has gently permeated the museum space, the tea room where we have lunch, and provides an almost-but-not-quite-inaudible background to teaching in the lecture theatre: it’s like all these people are with us all the time. I know they are as well even without the exhibition. I’ll just have to work harder at reminding myself.

On Monday, just before my colleagues begin to dismantle the exhibition, I will thank the ancestors for their work and tell them what is happening next. I will have to do this in English, but hope they understand what is in my heart, what my meaning is. I will say thank you for teaching English people about Blackfoot people and about why you are still important to your great-great-grandchildren. Thank you for reaching out to visiting First Nations and Native American people who identified themselves in the guest book. Thank you for touching the hearts and minds of so many people from so many different cultures. Thank you for your generosity and your strength. Thank you for teaching us here at the Pitt Rivers Museum, so many things. Thank you for making our relationships stronger with each other and with everyone involved in the project.

There have been, as Delia Cross Child said, so many ripples from this project. One of them is that I no longer worry that my museum colleagues will think I am bonkers when I speak out loud to the shirts. The colleagues in the room with me on Monday will include Heather Richardson, who came to Alberta to help with the handling sessions and who developed strong relationships with Blackfoot people as well—she speaks to the ancestors when she works with them too. Technical services colleagues, who were painted by Alvine Mountain Horse in the exhibition space, will be part of the team. Other colleagues have listened to Blackfoot mentors during visits to the Pitt Rivers over the years. I’m not the only one who will be sad to see this exhibition come down.

And what will I say to the ancestors about what is happening next? I will say that we are removing them from display to give them a physical rest. I will say that the book about the project is at press and that they will continue to teach through the book and the website. And I will remind them that their people have asked them to come home for a longer visit, and that this has been agreed—we just have to figure out the logistics and funding. I will remind them that their work has triggered another project, run by Alison Brown, which will see a Blackfoot delegation come to the UK this autumn to view collections at other museums. This is farewell, for a time, but certainly not the end.

I’ll miss them terribly, though.