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.