Thursday, 13 August 2015

Visiting the Great Box at home

Haida Gwaii, July 2016. Photograph by Laura Peers.

When there are long-term, established relationships between museums and communities, grant-funded projects enable both partners to fulfil key goals, take things in new directions, and spend time together to renew and strengthen ties. The Great Box project is a wonderful example of this.

The Haida Nation and the Pitt Rivers Museum have worked together since 1998, and formalized their relationship in 2009 with the visit of a very large Haida delegation to PRM to work with all 301 Haida objects and establish permanent relationships around the collection for mutual benefit. In 2010, PRM returned an ancestral remain to Haida Gwaii. Artists have come to PRM each year to learn from the collections and to teach Museum staff. Educational programmes at PRM have benefited tremendously from input by Haida curators and artists over the years.

Gwaai and Jaalen asked to do the Great Box project to learn from the historic artist and take that knowledge home with the new version of the box. The new box was shipped home for completion in October 2014 and immediately sparked many conversations amongst artists. It was also used to teach box design to high school students, and a formal unveiling event was held for it at the Haida Gwaii Museum in March. It has been on display there since.

With support from the ESRC Knowledge Exchange Dialogues fund and Linacre College, I was able to visit the box at home in Haida Gwaii last month, and catch up with Jaalen, Gwaai and other Haida friends and colleagues. Jaalen and I did a presentation to community members in the inspiring Performance Space of the Kay Llnagaay HeritageCentre adjacent to the Haida Gwaii Museum. Many people made the hour-long drive from Masset to see the box again and to discuss what we had learned from the project.

Laura Peers (R) and Jaalen Edenshaw (at R by box) in discussion with community members about the
Great Box project, July 2015. Photograph by Geoff Horner.

I also worked with Nika Collison, curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum, to begin planning another series of projects that comes out of the Great Box: an exhibition and book about Haida traditions of box-making. Nika kindly asked many community members if they would talk to me about this and I spent much of my time on island having great discussions with extremely knowledgeable people, from senior artists to a man who makes bentwood box coffins for community members to a woman who brought box-making into a program for youth. Everyone was extremely supportive of taking the project into these directions, and we also talked about how to make the process most useful for Haida artists. We hope to find funding also to hold workshops associated with this next step in which people can view historic boxes, talk about what makes great box design, and actually make boxes. The project needs to fulfil community needs and goals to take the relationship forward. There are many ways such activities would also benefit both museums involved.

We also talked about the major implication to come ‘out of the box’ from the Great Box project: the need for more artists to have direct access to more historic treasures so that this scale and depth of knowledge repatriation can happen. That’s what I’ll talk about next.

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