Monday, 28 November 2016

Please support the Origins and Futures bursary!

I am delighted to say that the University of Oxford has now launched a major campaign to create a scholarship for members of communities of origin to spend time in Oxford learning from heritage items which are in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections.

The Origins and Futures programme was inspired by the work of Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw in carving a new version of the Great Box several years ago. While the Museum hosts many visits annually from Indigenous people and other communities of origin for the collection, the Great Box project made people think about the potential of such visits for both communities and for the Museum, and solidified a desire by Museum staff to support such visits in a regular way.

As a result of the positive impact of this project, we are now establishing a new bursary programme, Origins and Futures. We want to welcome Indigenous artists, elders, and researchers from communities around the world to study and reconnect with unique cultural objects cared for by the Museum. Such visits strengthen traditional Indigenous knowledge and cultural identities while giving opportunities for Museum staff and visitors to learn more about the heritage and significance of the precious objects in the Museum’s collections.

 This is where we need your support.

 Each bursary for a visiting researcher or artist costs £8,000. This email is part of an appeal to raise at least £24,000 to pay for one artist or researcher to visit each year for three years. I would like to ask you to consider supporting the Origins and Futures programme. All donations will be used for the bursary, the Museum will donate administrative costs.

If you would like to know more about Origins and Futures and how you can support the Pitt Rivers Museum please contact me ( or visit the Museum’s Support Us page.

This bursary is something I have hoped to set up since I arrived in Oxford in 1998. It acknowledges the very real need of Indigenous peoples for contact with ancestral items in order to strengthen culture in the present, and it is part of the gradual establishment of positive relations and postcolonial shifts in thinking that we are working toward. Someday it may come to pass that heritage items will be returned to communities; it may also be that they are co-managed. I have tried to work toward co-management and the establishment of positive relationships during my Curatorship, as the building blocks for the next phase in our shared history. The Origins and Futures programme is the next step. Please consider supporting.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Postcolonial Museum Practice: 'displayed withholding' and long term engagements

Bryony Onciul came up from Exeter on Friday to give the Pitt Rivers Museum/Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology weekly research seminar, and spoke about her work on four very different sites of cultural representation with and by Blackfoot peoples in Alberta, Canada: Head-Smashed-In, Glenbow Museum, the Buffalo Nations (Luxton) Museum, and Blackfoot Crossing. While these are very different kinds of museums/cultural centres, all feature Blackfoot heritage and engagement with Blackfoot people ranging from collaboration to hiring Blackfoot staff to being developed within a Blackfoot community. Onciul’s book Museums, Heritage and Indigenous Voice: Decolonising Engagement has recently been published by Routledge.

Onciul has done a remarkable number of interviews with key players in Alberta case studies, especially Blackfoot elders and ceremonial leaders involved in these institutions. Her analysis is especially strong in two key areas. One of these examines how postcolonial museum practice is embedded into institutions in the longer term beyond the specific project. This is an issue which many of us who work in the field have noted for some time, but which is seldom if ever written about.

The other is the way that these institutions have approached difficult pasts, and her focus here is on what she terms ‘displayed withholding’: the presentation of one level of text and visual display but a conscious, thought-through refusal to display other levels. This might be because of cultural sensitivities over sacred material, or because community members such as residential school survivors deem the past too painful, too active within the community to want to go into depth in ways that would further traumatise people or continue the pain rather than heal. Often community consultants visually and materially reference such issues in ways that signal to informed insiders that they do know the fuller story but have decided not to tell it. Such displays can be read at a surface level by outsiders, and often constitute sensitive but challenging narratives for non-community members. How exhibition teams determine the ways to mediate between these layers is fascinating, and Onciul has used the rich archive of the Blackfoot Gallery process at Glenbow to explore these issues.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Visiting with the Ancestors: the book!

I am so happy to see the book about the Blackfoot Shirts Project, Visiting with the Ancestors: Blackfoot Shirts in Museum Spaces, finally available in material form!

It is available as a gorgeous paperback, and as a FREE pdf download, from the University of Athabasca press:

Visiting with the Ancestors
Blackfoot Shirts in Museum Spaces
Laura Peers and Alison K. Brown
In 2010, five magnificent Blackfoot shirts, now in the collections of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, were brought to Alberta to be exhibited at the Glenbow Museum, in Calgary, and the Galt Museum, in Lethbridge. The shirts had not returned to Blackfoot territory since 1841, when officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired them. The shirts were later transported to England, where they had remained ever since.
Exhibiting the shirts at the museums was however, only
 one part of the project undertaken by Laura Peers and Alison Brown. Guided by the Blackfoot, the project included a process
of reconnection with these important heritage items. Prior to the installation of the exhibits, groups of Blackfoot people—hundreds altogether—participated in special handling sessions, in which they were able to touch the shirts and examine them up close. Engaging with the shirts, some of which are painted with mineral pigments and adorned with porcupine quillwork and locks of human and horse hair, was a powerful experience for those who saw and touched them. Stories, knowledge and memory came together, and many participants described a powerful sense of connection with the spirits of the ancestors who made and wore the shirts.
In the pages of this beautifully illustrated volume is the story
of an effort to build a bridge between museums and Indigenous communities, in hopes of establishing stronger, more sustaining relationships between the two and spurring change in museum policies. Negotiating the tension between a museum’s institutional protocol and Blackfoot cultural protocol was challenging, but
 the experience described both by the authors and by Blackfoot contributors to the volume was transformative. For Blackfoot people today, these shirts are a living presence, one that evokes 
a sense of continuity and inspires pride in Blackfoot cultural heritage.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Material culture, politics, museums, and a Royal visit to Haida Gwaii

Photograph: Richard Lam, Vancouver Sun (reposted from The Province).

I greatly admire the respectful and diplomatic way in which the Haida nation recently hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In accordance with ancient Haida protocol, Haida people showed tremendous respect to their honoured guests. Haida teams made facilities secure, prepared activities and decorations, registered and transported local guests, and paddled the royal couple to the beach at Kaay Llnagaay, the Haida Heritage Centre, where they were welcomed ashore by Chief Gaahlaay and Haida Nation president Peter Lantin. Their guests were treated to Haida song and dance, a local food feast, and given mantles woven in Naaxiin style and trimmed with sea otter fur. They were also given a copper, a symbol of family honour and wealth, made by Gwaliga Hart. Everywhere that day there was regalia with clan crests, Haida hats, masks, material symbols of Haida heritage and identity.

There were also T-shirts. Many of those button blankets were worn over bright blue T-shirts with the slogan NO LNG, a reference to Haida protests over pipelines and tankers threatening pristine marine environments. Lisa Hageman, who wove the exquisite Naaxiin mantles given to the Duke and Duchess, emphasized the Haida role as guardians of lands, forests and waters in her design of the mantles by adding blue and green to the traditional pattern ‘All Our Ancestors.’ Such quiet but visible and determined articulation of principles and issues has a special power in situations when the Crown is represented in Aboriginal communities. All of these statements were made respectfully in the presence of high-ranking guests within the unceded territory of Haida Gwaii. Perhaps the most powerful challenge made was the gift of the copper, which invites reflection on the honour of the family bearing it.

Museums don’t often collect T-shirts with Indigenous protest slogans. They have collected coppers, masks, button blankets, woven hats, but seldom make the connection between these and the T-shirts. Culture and identity are tied to environment. Environmental degradation through oil spills and LNG leaks and fracking means for peoples like the Haida a loss not only of food but of time spent on the land and then a loss of stories, of knowledge, of language, of how to make and use cultural items: a dramatic erosion of identity and culture. Museums need to acknowledge and support such links between contemporary political protest and heritage items in collections and in communities.

I offer tremendous respect to the matriarchs, hereditary chiefs, leaders, artists and many others who facilitated this extraordinary event. It was wonderful to see so many people in the photographs with whom Pitt Rivers Museum staff have been able to work over the years. We look forward to continuing to work together.

Council of the Haida Nation posts on the visit are at:

Monday, 4 July 2016

Uneven consultation

Museum anthropologists always look for the politics in the relations between museums and indigenous peoples, the relations of power, what is unsaid as well as what is said. In the last few weeks, there have been several articles in Canadian media sources about B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s call for the return of objects to BC. The most recent ones [] clarified that the Haida nation was not consulted about this call before it went out. The reason that the Haida Nation was deliberately excluded from Clark’s ‘consultation’ process on the repatriation issue is because Clark supports oil and gas development, and the Haida oppose it. Clark’s dramatic call for returns of heritage materials, and ‘consultation’ process, is a means of building an Aboriginal support base in BC despite her intent to proceed with oil and gas development that would permanently damage lands and resources on which Aboriginal people depend for survival. It might also be seen as an attempt to build a support base of non-Aboriginal people who would then dismiss Aboriginal concerns about energy and sovereignty (‘what else do they want? We’ve given them their stuff back!’).

The Haida Nation has the best track record for repatriation of all Aboriginal nations in Canada; they have brought home nearly 500 ancestral remains. They have done so in a thoughtful, respectful way that has enabled them to build constructive bridges with museums. Other Aboriginal nations, and the Province, would benefit from working with the Haida Repatriation Committee to discuss their experience ( Museums and Indigenous peoples can work together productively around repatriation: as I have learned, largely from Haida people, everyone benefits from such relationships. Repatriation is necessary in many cases. Getting material heritage circulating through loans is also necessary: many Aboriginal communities don’t have facilities to care permanently for material heritage, but access can be provided in many ways. And whatever stance one might take on the oil/gas industry, access to heritage items is too important to Aboriginal survival to be caught up in this kind of political game.

If Premier Clark is serious about providing access to material heritage held in museums outside the country for Aboriginal peoples, I would invite her office to consider funding the first loan from UK museums to the Haida Gwaii Museum. There are important early historic collections of Haida material heritage in the UK, and we need to find a way to make them accessible to Haida people. To get rolling, this project will need between £15-20K to pay for standard loan fees (c.£6K to Haida Gwaii), a new case for the Haida Gwaii Museum that provides enhanced environmental controls and security for international loans, and time and costs for a museum staff member to stay for a few weeks and facilitate handling sessions out of case before placing the item on display. Once the program is up and running, it will be much less expensive to run. Objects can be rotated every few years and can provide access to the tens of thousands of B.C. Aboriginal artefacts in museums around the world, while strengthening relationships between those nations and museums to improve public interpretation. 

Everyone needs access to material heritage. Let’s find creative solutions that strengthen relationships in the process.