Sunday, 28 September 2014

We are all researchers

Research on the box. Photograph by Laura Peers

Academics often think of themselves as professional researchers. We have research skills and experience gained over decades of trawling archives, museum collections and other repositories for bits of information that are then carefully assessed and pieced together to understand the past, or the nature of things.

Indigenous community researchers do all of these things, with an additional impetus and care that comes of needing to know. Community members doing research on treaties, historical material culture, art, language and history are driven by the same passion to know as all the academic researchers I have met, but also don’t usually have the luxury of not knowing that academics have. Indigenous researchers are driven not just by artistic or historical curiosity, but by the need to strengthen identity and culture, to heal from colonialism, and to fight for sovereignty. Ignorance of the details of history and culture don’t get you anywhere in such struggles.

I’ve seen this over the years working with many Indigenous researchers, so it has made sense to me that after carving all day every days for the past three weeks, Gwaai and Jaalen go back to their rented apartment in Oxford in the evenings and search for information in books and online to explain the figures on the Great Box, the stories referred to, the authoritative sources for these stories, the provenance of this box, its relationship to other boxes. They have borrowed books, persuaded me to trawl the internet, emailed other people who might know, and raided online museum databases. In the process, they have identified several ‘sibling’ boxes, one of which was collected by Edmund Verney in the 1870s and is now in the British Museum. It seems to have come from the same artist because the front of the box shares several characteristic features with the PRM box.

On the last day of their trip to England, Gwaai and Jaalen are not taking a day off: they are going to London to see the Verney box, which British Museum staff are kindly removing from display for them. After their careful appraisal, informed by carvers’ eyes, we will be a bit closer to understanding the origins of the box they have worked with so closely for the past month.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


two weeks in…
(photograph by Laura Peers)

Two weeks on in the Great Box Project, and many late nights later, the new box is really taking shape. We had a chance to photograph both boxes together when Gwaai and Jaalen gave a talk to Museum staff. It was wonderful to bring all the different parts of the museum—administration, conservation, education, front of house, technical services, curatorial—and be in the same room listening to Haida perspectives on the Great Box and on the project. We all walk past the Great Box in its case quite often: we’ll never see it in quite the same way again. Hearing about plans for when the new box goes home to Haida Gwaii was also exciting. Gwaai and Jaalen are not trying to finish the whole box here at PRM. Taking it back unfinished, and working with other artists at home to finish it, and then using the box in their theatre and animation production company rather than making it a museum piece, will be part of the whole process of disseminating knowledge.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The real thing

The new box emerges…. Photograph by Mike Peckett, Pitt Rivers Museum

The box carving studio—the Pitt Rivers Museum’s seminar room—is a quiet, meditative space: quiet talk, some gossip, some discussion of the box artist’s idiosyncratic features, about having to carve in a particular direction to match the line on the old box. There is a lovely undertone of the sound of chisels, gouges, and extremely sharp knives on wood, and the smell of cedar.

Some of the carving is extremely delicate, and Gwaai and Jaalen are sometimes having to work in ways that are quite different to their usual patterns of creating designs. I’m sitting here at the other end of the room because Museum policy requires a staff member present for research visits—this is just a very long research visit, with chisels involved. I’m quiet too, not wanting to interrupt at a critical moment, respecting the concentration and work going on at the box.

Sometimes Gwaai or Jaalen comes over to the historic box to check a detail, and several times a day there are intense conversations at the historic box as both of them see details in the old box’s design and execution for the first time. This continual discovery from the historic box’s presence occurs despite the fact that Gwaai and Jaalen have been working with the scale photographs of the box for months, have traced the designs, and are very experienced artists. The angle and shape of the carving strokes don’t show in photographs, which flatten relief on objects. Photographs don’t show what direction the carving was done from; the box itself shows an experienced maker this kind of detail. There is room for a much stronger interface between museums and makers, and what I am seeing happening in this room is a reminder that museum digitization projects may not serve makers well in some respects. We need more projects like this, with historic objects and makers in the same room.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


photograph by Laura Peers

The view from my 'desk' in the Pitt Rivers Museum seminar room/carving studio this week: the magical combination of historic box, new box in progress of being carved, very sharp carving tools, extraordinary Haida artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, oh, and a water-cooled Tormek sharpening thingy by the sink. Which now has a plexi screen between it and the historic box, just to keep museological standards up.

I say 'magical' because there are powerful taboos about bringing all of these elements together, even now when museums have gone a long distance toward making collections available to communities to learn from and reconnect with. The process of carving the new box with the historic box in the room brings together museum protocols and values (always having staff in the room with objects, having an alarm on the room at night, not exposing historic collections to damage from sharp tools or water, preserving objects forever) with indigenous community protocols and values, and with artists' needs to  touch the box to measure the dept of carving, to use gauges to record profiles of carved elements, to get samples of new paint as close as possible to the historic paint to match colours. We are all in this together; it's just that there is a powerful kind of energy in the room where all of this, and all of us, do come together. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Finally, everybody in the same place!

In the museum world, this is something to celebrate!

Gwaai and Jaalen arrived on September 1st and it was wonderful to bring them together with both boxes in the same space, on the same continent! They began by having a close look at the box. Having worked from photographs that flattened the carved design into a two-dimensional image, it was important to think about carving angles, v grooves, planes, and how all of this worked with the formline design. They also thought a bit more about the box carver’s ‘tells,’ his characteristic use of formline and planes.

And so is this: Haida artists together with the box. Gwaai and Jaalen reacquaint themselves with the box's complexity

Then they took the tracing of the design they had made from the scale photographs and began applying the design to the new box

tracing of design overlaid onto scale photograph of front of box

And finally they began to paint. Some of the key parts of the design are painted before carving so the paint doesn’t run into the carved areas.

beginning to paint the design outline

And finally they were able to begin carving. Now things get interesting…

All photographs in this blog post are by Laura Peers.