Sunday, 24 September 2017

Strawberries and smoke

This summer, I was privileged to spend time with colleagues rehousing the human remains at the Museum’s off-site storage facility. This was necessary as part of the move of collections out of that facility, and also in preparation for repatriating ancestral remains, which we have taken the decision to do. We were working with crania from across North America, many of them culturally modified. Some of them have been at Oxford for centuries. My colleagues and I removed each cranium from its box, enhanced the museum record for the individual, and placed each one in a new box, cushioned with acid-free tissue.

Before we began this work, I responded to requests from Indigenous colleagues and spoke to the spirits of the ancestors. I told them who we were, what we were going to do with them, and why. I told them that their people loved them very much and that we would try to make it possible for them to go home. I thanked them for teaching us as museum professionals and said that we would send food to them through the fire. I used the right to smudge that was transferred to me by Blackfoot ceremonial people and smudged the space to cleanse it. Later, we lit a small barbecue and drawing on Haida cultural ways, sent traditional North American Indigenous foods to the spirits through the fire: wild rice, salmon, maple sugar, wild strawberries.

University Health and Safety was not initially happy with the idea of smudging or food burning. They had never seen it before, and had ideas of billowing smoke inside the storage area and wafting around Oxford. In the end we invited them to be present, and they were incredibly moved and helpful. Everyone learns from these opportunities.

It felt odd to do these ceremonies without Indigenous colleagues present. I am wary of cultural appropriation, and do not do such things unless there has been a direct request to do so and no way to bring Indigenous people over to do such work. In this situation, I was able to consult with several colleagues from across North America beforehand, and then drew on long experience and teaching from several Indigenous mentors to smudge and send food to the ancestors. The process made me feel more than ever that we need stronger bridges between UK museums and Indigenous communities. Repatriation is one way to build those, and we are now researching the origins of as many remains as possible so they might some day go home.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Great Box goes home

Recently, I attended a potlatch on Haida Gwaii in which a respected activist, artist and political leader stepped into the clan chieftainship of the Ravens of Skedans. Although I have worked with Haida people since 1998 and made many trips to Haida Gwaii, I had never before had the opportunity of attending a potlatch. And while anthropology lecturers at Oxford have taught about “the potlatch” for over a century, based on anthropological literature, none had ever been invited to attend a potlatch as a witness. So I went to “honor the invitation,” as the Haida say; I went to show respect for the man who has become Chief Gidansta and his family; I went to renew relationships with many Haida people; and I went to see the new version of the Great Box, the Great Box’s child, being used in a potlatch, as it was originally meant to be used.

In anthropological terms, a potlatch is an event involving a change in status or identity: a wedding, a funeral, an adoption, becoming a chief. The host clan invites, feasts and presents gifts to guests, who witness the business conducted and not only provide collective support for it but are also responsible afterwards to witness and affirm the identity of the person(s) at the centre of the business. In my case, I affirm that Guujaaw is now Chief Gidansta, and I was with about a thousand people who saw it done, so it’s true. The host clan’s specific crests are displayed and affirmed, told through stories and dance and song, reminding people which crests belong to that clan. A totem pole, also with the clan’s specific crests, may be carved and raised to commemorate the event. History is re-told in art and dance, and added to.

I had been told that the Great Box’s child would feature in the potlatch in some way. As a curator, I see masterpiece-level Haida art sitting on shelves, held motionless in displays by elaborate supports, or wrapped in tissue paper in acid-free boxes. I’ve learned that when such items are performed by Haida people—old masks brought to the face and danced, ancient hats worn on the head, gambling sticks used to gamble with—something very special happens. This was initially a source of tension (as a curator, aren’t I supposed to keep things physically safe?), but I’ve had excellent Haida teachers, and have learned to treasure these magical moments when long-dormant treasures come to life. Those moments of cultural renewal and continuity are precisely what the 1884 revisions to the Indian Act that made the potlatch illegal, tried to kill. The historic Great Box was removed from Haida Gwaii, along with nearly every other masterpiece-level treasure, during the years of missionisation, assimilation policies, and residential schools. That’s how most of those ancestral treasures that I see sitting on shelves got to Oxford. Those rare, magical moments when items are danced, when they move, when they are lovingly held by Haida people, affirm that although hearts were often broken during those years, Haida culture was not. If it went quiet, like the masks on shelves, it has been woken again and is dancing.

What happens when a long-absent masterpiece comes home? And what, I wondered, would happen when it was used in a potlatch, mending part of the rupture in Haida cultural history that the collection of the historic box, its removal from Haida Gwaii, was part of?

The new box sat in front of the chiefs’ table, beside the podium and near an ancient clan box borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York for the occasion. It was flanked by coppers, witnessing and framing the events, placing this potlatch within an ongoing history of potlatches by the host clan. Front and center in the action, the Great Box’s riveting design was echoed by the designs on the chief’s seat and the banner behind the chief’s table, taken from sibling boxes identified by Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw as having been made by the same artist. The meal was served to the chiefs by host clan members who made their way around the box, carrying plates and coffee pots and water jugs. People came up during lulls in the action and visited with chiefs, admired the boxes, took pictures; occasionally someone came and spent a long time going around every side of the box, mesmerized. At the pivotal moment in the ceremony, the new box was used as it was meant to be: as a box of treasures, from which the new chief’s regalia was unpacked by his family as they lovingly dressed him during that moment of transformation.

It was where the historic box was meant to be, if it had not been removed from Haida Gwaii. The new box sat, powerful and beautiful, between chiefs and coppers and dancers, hearing Haida language and song, watching the aunties visit, admiring the excellent pies, smelling seafood. At one point, a toddler being given her Haida name danced to her naming song in front of it, bouncing up and down in a room filled with love and happiness. The Great Box took it all in. There was no hole in the room where it should have been. The Great Box’s child has come home.

The Great Box Project through which the new box was made was funded, in part, by UK research funding, for which I have to monitor the impact of research on the public. Impact is defined as "the demonstrable contributions that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations," which can include "influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour," and "capacity building through technical and personal skill development."  

While I don’t have any difficulty with the concept of accounting for the use of public funds, I do wonder how to describe the impact of the Great Box’s return in such terms. Where does “mending ruptures caused by colonial processes” fit in such discourse? How would we measure it? How does bringing such a masterpiece home and using it as it was intended to be used fit into such registers of language? How do we translate the concepts of healing and cultural strength into “benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations”?

I am struggling to find the right words. Whether I find them or not, my respect goes out to the Ravens of Skedans and to Gidansta and his family for their generous hosting at this most extraordinary feast, and to artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw for creating such an extraordinary work. Haawa’a, haawa’a, haawa’a.

The new Great Box being admired at the potlatch, March 2017. Photographer: Laura Peers.

Impact is defined at: 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Student power: eyes for those who cannot visit

This past term, graduate students in the University of Oxford seminar ‘Powerful Things’ (offered in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography) acted as the eyes for two different Indigenous communities, recording visual information and taking notes on two different items of material heritage. In the first session, the students examined and photographed and sketched a Plateau dress [1893.67.7] from HBC officer Edward Hopkins’ collection, thought to have been acquired in 1841. Two weeks later, the students did the same with a Chilkat apron [1884.56.82] that was in General Pitt Rivers’ collection by 1877.

The idea for these sessions came from members of the Kalispel community in western USA, who had found information about the dress online and asked for images of the address. As with many items in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection, the museum had not yet photographed this important item. Normally I might have gone down to the textile store and taken some photographs myself. As I knew I would be teaching the seminar, however, I had the idea to ask all 12 students to observe, photograph and record everything we could about the dress. Then I thought it would be interesting to give the students the chance to observe and photograph a second object made of very different materials. For each item, Indigenous community members contributed questions about the object for the students to answer. This contact between the communities and the students was really helpful for the students in their learning.

Students in the 'Powerful Things' seminar in action

Both sessions were very successful. The students got to learn from important historical teachers, and they also learned what a privilege it is to have access to such collections. At the beginning of each session, I acknowledged and thanked our teacher and told the students that it was our responsibility to provide as much useful information to the communities of origin as possible because it was quite likely that most members of those communities would never have the chance to see this object in person. That is a regrettable truth about Indigenous collections in museums in Britain.

The students took this responsibility very seriously. In each session they produced over 100 photographs and sketches, and tried to answer all the community questions for each item. We have now uploaded images to a dropbox for each community and will be putting them online as well.

This process has taught me that it is possible for students to work as volunteers for Indigenous communities and to provide some visual access to material heritage held in overseas collections. I look forward to talking with members of these two communities about how to make such images and information most useful to them.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017


Cuneiform tablet, Iraq. Bronze Age Babylonia. 1966.32.76. Literacy originated in what is now Iraq and surrounding countries. #museumsfordiversity

PRM 1966.32.76

Monday, 30 January 2017

Refugees Welcome Here!

As a museum of human history and cross-cultural diversity, a place celebrating human creativity and a space of reflection about the failures of cross-cultural relationships, the Pitt Rivers Museum has chosen in its recent Strategic Plan to work actively with refugee communities, with LGBTQ groups, and with other vulnerable communities.

An active program of relationship-building and activities with refugee groups is well underway, and we are exploring how to make the Museum a safe space for refugees, a place where their rich cultures and stories will be valued. Last week, we convened the first Faculty Champions workshop with Oxford faculty in Refugee Studies and the Centre on Migration and Policy Studies, to facilitate teaching on their core topics using PRM collections. 

Some time ago, I recall the former head of the museum service in northern Ireland say that during the Troubles, museums were about the only space where differences could be discussed in a respectful way, the only space where difference was tolerated in public. 

Museums have an important role to play internationally in encouraging diversity, in supporting refugee and immigrant populations, and in educating public audiences and creating tolerance in civic society. We need to step up our actions, to signal publicly, to use the power of visual representation, to take on this leadership role right now. 

@Diversity is our Strength

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Powerful Things: a graduate seminar in museum anthropology

I’m really excited to teach my graduate seminar this term. We are focusing on 3 spectacular items of Indigenous heritage, with discussion sessions around those, and working with two different communities to answer their questions about the items we are examining. This should be fun: I am asking all 12 students to turn their keen eyes, minds, sharp pencils and cameras toward these items. This is the first time I have linked student engagements with material culture and community questions, but it seemed a really good way to answer some research questions that came in from one community about one of the items we’ll be looking at. 

[And it's 12 students because that's all I can fit in the research room!]

We are starting with Powhatan’s Mantle at the Ashmolean, which we will examine in its case, but it is an ancient and powerful object to help us develop a material and visual research strategy for the items we are looking at out of case, and to begin to think with objects. This item came from Pocahantas’ father Powhatan c.1630s, during the early diplomatic negotiations between English settlers and Indigenous peoples on the east coast.

Then we’ll go on to look at two items in the research room (ie not behind glass):

A hide Plateau dress, collected by Sir George Simpson and his secretary Edward Hopkins of the HBC in 1841 [PRM 1893.67.7]. Kalispel tribal member Annette Pierre has been liaising with community members to compile their questions for our study of this dress.


A woven Chilkat apron, probably Tsimshian, possibly Tlingit [PRM 1884.56.82]. We know nothing about the provenance of this apron, but it was in Pitt Rivers’ personal collection by 1877.  A version of this apron was made by Dolores Churchill while she was studying with Cheryl Samuel, and Dolores Churchill, and Dolores and her daughter Evelyn Vanderhoop are kindly contributing questions and thoughts to our study.

PRM 1884.86.52

Both study sessions will result in extensive documentary records, photographs and sketches, and ‘mapped’ photo-shopped detailed images of the items (visual condition reports) which will be made available publically, online as well as through Indigenous community networks.

In between, we’ll be discussing the changing meanings and roles of material and visual culture across time and cultures, focusing on the social and political roles of heritage items today as Indigenous societies strengthen distinct identities in postcolonial contexts through re-engagements with material and visual heritage. We’ll be thinking about issues of hybridity, cultural change and persistence, heritage, postmemory and sensory engagements with heritage items in the legacy of trauma, and Indigenous survivance.

Very glad as always to have the excellent Giovanna Vitelli along for the course! It will be really challenging, fun, and productive.