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.

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