Saturday 9 March 2019

Boxes of possibility--and frustration

[Republished from, 4 March 2019]

Museum collections are legacies of imperial and colonial histories. The dynamics of those histories mean that much Indigenous material heritage from what is currently called Canada is not held in Canadian museums. Much of this material resides in overseas museums, especially in Britain. This geographic distance complicates the ability of Indigenous peoples to access ancestral items. As many Indigenous mentors have instructed myself and my museum colleagues, ancestral items are not objects; they are imbued with animate spirits or potential. Herman Yellow Old Woman (Siksika) expressed this by saying, "When we come here [to the museum] we pray, we talk to these things you call artefacts. they're live; it's a living thing" (p.104). Such items are witnesses to an narratives of Indigenous histories as experienced by community members. Contact with them facilitates healing by strengthening the transfer of knowledge across generations and by sparking the narration of community and family histories. Work with historic collections constitutes a special form of historical research with deep meanings in the present.

As curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum since 1998, I have explored ways to make collections accessible to Indigenous communities of origin. This has been part of a broader shift in UK curation, one dependent on external research grants: it costs about $5,000 to move one item from the UK to Canada due to specialist crating, insurance, air freight and courier costs. Museums struggle to meet operational expenses--which don't include loans, overseas research visits or repatriation costs--making external funding a necessity for access projects. 

Despite these challenges, UK museums have begun to embrace such work. Online access to photographs and information, 3D digitisation, and partnering in online portals to collections have all been part of this work. So has working with Indigenous delegations to UK museums and enhanced loans which include handling opportunities for community members. Such work has begun to improve access and, perhaps more importantly, to develop relationships between museums and Indigenous communities. 

The Great Box and its child, Pitt Rivers Museum, 2015. Photograph by Robert Rapoport, courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

The Great Box Project

Access and repatriation take many forms. The PRM collections include the "Great Box," a nineteenth-century Haida bentwood box by an unknown artist who was one of the great masters of the strict rules of Haida formline. There is no information on how or where it was acquired, but it is known that the Great Box was in General Pitt Rivers' collection in England by 1877. During a Haida research delegation in 2009, artists were captivated by the box. They wanted to learn from this historic artist, but said they would need to have him in the room and to learn by making an exact replica. We found funding to do that in 2015. Carvers Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw made a blank box to exactly the same dimensions as the original, and brought it and their tools to Oxford, where the master artist challenged and taught them. They put their learning into the new box, deliberately replicating every carving stroke down to the direction, depth and angle of the original to understand the master artist's vision.

Figure 2 The Great Box's child, Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw with high school students, Master, 2015. Photograph by Geoff Horner.

Gwaai and Jaalen then took the Great Box's "child" back to Haida Gwaii. Within a week, it went to the high school in Master to give a lesson on classic Haida art. It inspired local artists when exhibited at Saahlinda Naay (the Haida Gwaii Museum) and has been used at the Bill Reid Gallery and the Museum of Vancouver for audiences to consider issues of reconciliation. Most poignantly, it has been used for its traditional purpose, in a potlatch on Haida Gwaii, as a box of treasures, holding a clan chief's regalia so he could be dressed by his matriarchs as he became chief.

Gwaai and Jaalen's goal for this project was to learn from a master carver ancestor, to take that knowledge home, and to bring a masterpiece back into use in the community. This project also sparked a search for sibling boxes in other museums, in an attempt to put a name to the artist. This has been a process of intense historical research: carvers' trained eyes and hands see things that historians' eyes can't. With further grants, they have located siblings at museums across North America.

Tracking down this material is time-consuming, visiting it is costly, museum records about provenance are frustratingly incomplete, and permission to touch boxes has not always been given. Gwaai and Jaalen are doing this work to restore something that collectors did not think worth noting: the name of the artist, his clan, his village, his history of apprenticeship and commissions. that information, and the artistic knowledge the historic artist is sharing with them, contributes to the mending of systems of knowledge and their transmission damaged by colonial processes.

The search for this artist also led to consideration of Haida-language terms for the elements of Haida art. Northwest Coast artists largely used English terms for the standard elements of this visual language: formline, ovoid, u-form. These were developed by artist and curator Bill Holm. Reclaiming Haida language terms for these elements--even developing new terms where none were recorded historically--is a powerful strategy for cultural sovereignty. Seeing the Great Box's child on display at the Museum of Vancouver's Haida Now! exhibition, with Gwaai's explanation of these new terms in view of the box, reminded me how potent acts of repatriation are--and how they support other elements of Indigenous culture and well-being. Shifting from "formline" to Sgaajuu, "storyline," to describe Haida art makes a world of difference. 

Figure 3 The Great Box's child emerging. Photograph by Robert Rapoport. Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Numerous questions raised by this historical research need more attention. Why are so few academic historians using material evidence? Old Master produced large quantities of bentwood boxes across the late nineteenth century, supplying huge international demand: how does that align with broad narratives about Indigenous cultural loss or the strategies Indigenous people used to cope with assimilation pressures? What other narratives might it suggest? Nuanced histories of the Haida have been emerging from the exhibitions and detailed catalogues of the Haida Gwaii Museum and its curator Nika Collison: how can academic historians support such work? And why are Indigenous goals such as restoring the names of historic artists seldom shared by academic historians?

Repatriation Challenges

There were huge difficulties with this project, beyond the significant grantsmanship required to make it happen. Gwaai and Jaalen could only be in Oxford for 30 days, due to UK visa restrictions. They needed the historic box in the room with them, which violated museum protocols given the presence of sharp tools. As curator, I had to be in the room with them when the historic box was present. That was a privilege for me, and I hope they didn't see me as jailer. I had trouble shipping the new box both ways, because western red cedar is a restricted import to the UK; technically it should have been heat-treated. Describing it as furniture on the customs forms got around that, but we had to pay duties to get the new box back into Canada because it wasn't going to a museum. And while museum colleagues supported the artists' goals, they also had their own, and extracted knowledge, quotes and photographs from the artists to use in museum education programs, labels, and marketing. Museums gain a great deal of ethical capital from participation in such projects.

James Clifford notes that repatriation "establishes Indigenous control over cultural artefacts and thus the possibility of engaging with scientific research on something like equal terms" (Clifford 2004:18). Likewise, UNDRIP and the TRC include strong recommendations about access to Indigenous material heritage as an issue of Indigenous sovereignty. However, there is little sovereignty or equality in sight when you're dealing with customs regulations, visa restrictions, or museum protocols about opening cases so artists can touch. There is as yet no federal funding to support wider-scale communication about where collections are held, community research visits, or repatriation (although Bill C-391 may change that). Indigenous researchers fundraise to visit ancestors in museums. Repatriation costs are paid by the community, not the museum--a galling fact given how so many Indigenous items ended up in museums. 

Having academic historians ignore key sources for understanding the past isn't helping, either. By focusing so much on archival sources and excluding material ones, we are limiting the questions we even ask about the past. There is so much that Indigenous heritage collections can help us to understand--about the present as well as the past, and the ways these are entwined. Like the Great Box's child, there are many creative forms of access and repatriation emerging. All of them have incredible transformative power, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers alike.

I would like to acknowledge the scholarly and creative contributions of Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw to the Great Box project. 

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Wild Rice wars: curating from a different place

Since last May, I have been curating for the Pitt Rivers Museum from a very different place. I am now based in Canada, and respectfully acknowledge that my home is on the treaty and traditional territory of the Mississauga Anishinaabeg near Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), in Ontario. Territorial acknowledgements such as this are common at universities, museums and government offices. They are used to open meetings and conferences, to greet and orient visitors to museums, to remind people that Canada is in the fraught process of trying to acknowledge and do something about its colonial heritage.

Wild rice in winnowing tray. Image from Black Duck Wild Rice.

This really is a fraught process. Last weekend, 300 people crowded into a local hall near my home for an acrimonious meeting called by a local association of second home owners. They are irate that an Anishinaabe man has been seeding wild rice on their lake and harvesting it with commercial equipment. The expanded rice beds clog the waterways for motor boats and have changed the clear, rocky waterscapes familiar to and beloved by cottage owners. Wild rice, manomin, is an ancient staple of Anishinaabe diet but rights to harvest it have been unclear under historical treaties and contested by settlers. The rice harvest, just finished, has raised these disputes again. Tensions have been very high over the past decade in this region about the wild rice issue, so much so that the issue has been described as a war in some media. Anishinaabe author Drew Hayden Taylor has written a play, now touring with a major Canadian company, called “Cottagers and Indians” about the issue. The “Save Pigeon Lake” website, put up by cottage owners, is uncompromising in its demand for the removal of the rice beds and cessation of Indigenous harvesting. 

Pitt Rivers Museum 1939.6.9.1,2.

So what do we do in the UK with collections that reference such local political tensions? The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a wooden mortar and pestle (accession number 1939.6.9.1,2) collected by staff anthropologist Beatrice Blackwood in 1939 in Minnesota. Someone has written the word “potogan” on one side of the mortar: boodaagan, the Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) word meaning a mortar for wild rice. The tools are not polished, not finely made, but are smoothed with use. They’re not especially beautiful or decorative. They’re powerful, though, speaking to long traditions of harvestingmanomin, and to the politics of resource use around the Great Lakes. The meeting near my new home is just the latest manifestation of such settler colonial attempts to control and eliminate Indigenous peoples, another long tradition experienced by Anishinaabe people.

As the equivalent of territorial acknowledgement, could museums in the UK (and in Canada) acknowledge colonial histories and their legacies, the struggles around the materials museums display? Saying ‘Ojibwa,’ ‘wild rice mortar and pestle,’ ‘wood,’ ‘collected by Beatrice Blackwood’ doesn’t seem enough. Such language denies history and politics and the roles of museums within these. Perhaps we could say, ‘Mortar and pestle for processing wild rice (manomin), Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) people, Minnesota. Collected by Beatrice Blackwood, 1939. Settlement and treaties with British, Canadian and American governments have made it difficult to harvest this nutritious traditional food today.’ Even something as simple as a single contextual sentence in a label is key to shifting historical collections into the space of ongoing community ties, politics, and meanings.

On the Kawarthas wild rice controversy, see:

Clifford Skarstedt,, 4 November 2018.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Manifesto for UK museum ethnography?

In my presentation at the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference last week, I included what one colleague has referred to as a manifesto. I don't know about others, but I am frustrated by both the structural limitations and the failure to consider seriously the rights and needs of Indigenous peoples by UK museums. I say that after two decades of trying to find ways to overcome the structural limitations.

Here are the specific calls to action I made in that presentation:

Maybe we could consider the following, within our own practice and within our own museums and professional bodies in the UK:
*formally acknowledge, in the MEG constitution, and in our respective institutional strategic plans, that museums have responsibilities to communities of origin as well as to objects
And maybe we could:
      Get grants to fund Indigenous teams to work with UK museums
      Use technology to increase Indigenous presence in museum governance and curation
      Do electronic fieldtrips for communities of origin 
      Have free MEG conference places for speakers from communities of origin
      Create more partnerships between UK museums and Indigenous communities
      Pay overseas Indigenous partners to write labels, select objects for display
      Work with the Haida Gwaii Museum to create an exhibition about repatriation and new relationships with museums internationally
      Discuss the difficult histories of objects on display
      Fund Indigenous scholars + interns to visit UK collections
      Reinvent loans as community research opportunities: maybe we could treat loans as always having community research components, and train couriers to facilitate those sessions, and work with overseas borrowing institutions to invite community members to learn from visiting collections

Beyond those immediate things, we need collectively to consider the really key questions and issues:
      How do we increase the presence, voice and authority of Indigenous peoples in UK museums?

      As museum professionals and representatives, how do we create more ‘active relations of reciprocity and dialogue’ [Clifford 2018] with communities of origin than we have now?

Friday 13 April 2018

'Decolonise your budgets' and other reflections on the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference

What a lively and productive set of discussions it has been over the last few days at the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference as we worked through issues involved in 'decolonising the museum in practice.' So many interesting presentations: Claudia Augustat got us off to a great start by considering how staff are addressing the colonial past at the Weltmuseum in Vienna--where Hitler's balcony is on the next building over--in a currently rather right-wing Austria, and pointed out that one of the things museums need to decolonise is their budgets, so they can pay Indigenous partners and experts and support their communities in various ways. Rachel Minott gave a powerful account of curating the exhibition 'The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire,' which was led by an ethnic minority team. She noted the burden on Black and ethnic minority museum staff and how they often leave museums to work in arts organisations that don't carry the same historical legacies. JC Niala, an Oxford Master's student who kept turning up in my lectures all this year, gave a powerful presentation on a single photograph of her grandfather and issues of access and control over such materials.

There was a grounded set of approaches to the theme over the two days, with issues of voice, agency, power and representation at the fore. I was left with the sense that participants are grappling in honest ways with colonial legacies and feeling their ways into how to unpack and address these. And I am grateful for PRM director Laura Van Broekhoven's emotionally and intellectually honest approach to the complexities of the Pitt Rivers Museum, wondering in the final wrap-up session if the museum needs a space for those visitors who do not see the displays as inspiring, but raising legacies of violence and control, to process and clear emotions and other responses to the displays.

I note that the online Twitter critics earlier in the week were absent from these very productive discussions. Clearly, there is much to do to address colonial legacies in UK museums. In a spirit of hope, some of us have already begun to discuss those actions. One of them needs to be to let public audiences know what is happening in that direction, and then we need to do lots of other things. Watch this space.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

'Decolonising the Museum in Practice'

Over the next two days, the Pitt Rivers Museum will host over one hundred delegates for the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference. The theme of this year's conference is 'decolonising the museum in practice' and was chosen by colleagues who actually do want to change their practice. The conference comes after several in-house workshops earlier this year at which PRM staff reflected on legacies of colonialism affecting ethnographic museums in general and PRM in particular.

Pitt Rivers Museum

While many PRM staff have worked with collections in postcolonial ways over the years, most of that work has been behind the scenes and seldom articulated in the museum's famously Victorian-looking displays. We need to engage the public and the displays in the kind of work we've been doing with Indigenous and other communities of origin, and to shift the image of the museum as a colonial space. And as is typical in ethnographic museums, certain staff tend to manage these projects and associated relationships. The process over the past six months leading up to this conference has been different, involving a much broader range of staff engaging with difficult issues.

Learning involves making mistakes. We have already made some in this process: one of our long-standing and greatly respected Indigenous colleagues called us on the fact that we expected all conference delegates to pay registration fees. Given that we are trying to increase the involvement of Indigenous community members in the museum, we should have thought well ahead and found funding to pay speakers' registration fees to increase diversity. That is a lesson learned. I am looking forward to speaking about the Museum's long learning (and mistake-making!) process with Indigenous people at the conference and to the lively dialogue that this set of issues, in this particular context, will undoubtedly generate. 

Wednesday 31 January 2018

Haida weaver Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas visits ancestral collections in UK

I am so happy that the Origins and Futures Fund has been able to partner with the YVR Foundation this year to begin a bursary programme for visiting Indigenous researchers! Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas has been the inaugural scholar.

Over the past week, Lisa Hageman, an accomplished Haida weaver specializing in Raven’s Tail weaving, has been able to learn from a range of ancestral Haida items in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and British Museum. Supported by the Origins and Futures Fund at the University of Oxford, which supports bursaries for Indigenous researchers to visit heritage items, and the YVR Foundation’s Masterpiece Study Program for Indigenous researchers from British Columbia and the Yukon, Lisa viewed both woven and carved items. 

Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas with PRM staff member Nicholas Crowe examining naaxiin apron [PRM 1884.56.82], January 2018

Reflecting on the Pitt Rivers Museum part of the trip, Lisa said,

“This week, spent in intensive study of a wide range of ancestral pieces, from a naaxiin apron to my great-great-grandfather Charles Edenshaw’s engraved silver cane decoration, has been inspiring and laid the groundwork to begin expanding my current artistic practice into new areas. At the same time, it has strongly reminded me that the standard to which we contemporary artists must strive for is incredibly high.

Studying the naaxiin apron [PRM1884.56.82] in particular has reawakened in me the curiosity to explore the dying techniques that weavers employed. I am motivated to try dyeing with wolf moss to achieve the yellow colour on this dance apron. The wolf moss has been gifted to me by my great-aunt Dolores Churchill and I’ve been saving it for the right moment. The right time has now arrived.”

Dolores Churchill’s version of this apron has featured in many exhibitions and has become a very visible symbol of the determination to pass on naaxiin weaving techniques. Lisa worked with the apron for several days, and says: “This apron has particularly finely spun warp and weft. The weft looks to be the same as contemporary lace weight yarn; the only place that does not hold true are the two blue components which are a heavier weight.” She also noted that the apron did not have fur trim when it was made. 

Lisa credits the foundation blocks of her artistic practice to her early teachings by Dolores, Lisa's great grandmother Selina Peratrovich, cousins Holly Churchill and April Churchill and her tutelage under cousin Evelyn Vanderhoop as an adult.  The incredible teachings of Evelyn Vanderhoop and these other remarkable and gifted women allowed Lisa to forge her own path.  “I properly acknowledge and give my gratitude for the knowledge Evelyn and my Eagle relatives shared.  They allowed me to achieve my own successes with the tools they empowered me with.” Visiting with the ancestral pieces at the Pitt Rivers Museum has “further added to and strengthened my ongoing creative exploration. It has also reaffirmed that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.”

Working with these items across the week showed the complex, multi-layered research methodology that artists like Lisa bring to such work. With the objects in front of her, Lisa
engaged with her own experience, knowledge and practice. Museum staff also retrieved books and searched online to find comparative items in other collections. James Swanton’s ethnographic field notes were called up online to look up which families possessed certain crests. Conservators were brought in to the research space to consider whether strings used as riggings for masks had been re-spun by Haida women from commercial cotton fibre, and what kind of hair was used on one mask. 3D and infrared imaging were commissioned for several items, “so that when I’m not here I can continue to revisit the piece and continue to learn from it.”

In thinking about the week overall, and the experience of coming to Oxford to work with Haida ancestral treasures, Lisa noted, “historically, anthropologists, curators, museums and private collectors held Haida art in high esteem. To me it seems quite normal to have to come here: someone valued it enough to save it and thus we might learn from it and now these pieces might revisit the islands from which they originated.’

Lisa Hageman Yahgujanaas is from Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. She wove the Chief’s Robe for Chief Idansuu (James Hart) and her latest robe will be installed in the Canadian High Commission in Paris in spring 2018. Her website is at:

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.