Thursday, 26 February 2015

The (new) Great Box, home on Haida Gwaii!

We have just uploaded a wonderful video showing the new Great Box teaching, with Gwaai and Jaalen, in the high school at Masset on Haida Gwaii. It is wonderful to see that we have managed to bridge the historical, geographical and political distance between Masset and the Pitt Rivers Museum,  and that the box is once more active within Haida life. You can watch the video here:

And there will be an unveiling of the Great Box on 7 March at the Haida Gwaii Museum: poster below.

I wish I could be at the unveiling! This is such an exciting project and I am just so proud to be part of it. Looking forward to catching up with the box later this spring, though.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Franklin's moccasin, part 2: family ties

Moccasin from Franklin, PRM 1997.19.27
What a story! This is a mystery, a romance, and a peek into early 19thC English intellectual families, all in one.

F. Griffin, it turns out, was Frances Griffin, older sister of Jane Griffin who married John Franklin. John Franklin’s first wife Eleanor Porden died just six days after he set out to sea in 1825 on this second Arctic expedition. She had been very ill for some time, and they said their goodbyes to each other before he left—and he went with her blessing.

When Franklin returned to England in September 1827, he began courting Jane Griffin, a friend of his late wife. They married in November 1828. Jane was 36, John was 42. This period of his life was the pinnacle of Franklin’s career: he was being lionized as ‘the Arctic hero,’ and was knighted in April 1829 and awarded an honorary DCL from Oxford. He must have been quite a catch for Jane, and she proved to be an extraordinary match for him.

If the moccasin was indeed given to Frances—Franklin’s soon-to-be sister-in-law—in 1827, then the gift was made almost immediately after Franklin’s return in September of that year, suggesting that his courtship was moving fairly quickly and that he was forming close relations with Jane’s family.

Frances had the moccasin in her possession for a year, at the most: she received it after Franklin returned to England in September 1827, and she gave the moccasin to Mr or Mrs Gilbert on the 23rd of November 1828, very soon after the marriage of Jane Griffin and John Franklin on 5 November 1828.

Looking closely at the label on the moccasin, I think it says ‘& by Miss Griffin given to Mrs Gilbert Nov’r 23rd 1828’. The ‘r’ in Mrs appears to be shaped identically to the ‘r’ on the line above in ‘Griffin’. The sign for the double s in Miss does not appear here; I think it is a single ‘s’ at the end of this word. So who was Mrs Gilbert?

The Griffins were related to the family of Davies Gilbert, a scientist and MP who was President of the Royal Society from 1827-30, around the time Frances Griffin was given the moccasin and John Franklin married her sister Jane. Jane and Frances’ mother, Jane (Jeanne Marie) Guillemard, was the sister-in-law of Davies Gilbert via Davies’ sister Mary Phillipa, who married John Lewis Guillemard, whose sister Jeanne Marie was Jane and Frances’ mother. Frances gave the moccasin to her aunt by marriage, ‘Mrs Gilbert’.

 ‘Mrs Gilbert’ was Mary Ann, who brought her surname and estates to her marriage: her husband Davies Giddy took her surname to inherit. She was interested in the welfare of the poor, and encouraged poor rural families to grow crops and livestock on unused land to feed themselves. She became a prominent member of the Labourers’ Friend Society, founded in 1830, and died in 1845.

In giving the moccasin to her aunt by marriage, Frances Griffin was showing us not only her family connections but also many intellectual and social connections. Frances Griffin married the geologist Ashurst Majendie and he, John Franklin, and Davies Gilbert all knew each other through the Geographical Society. John Lewis Guillemard, Frances’ maternal uncle, tutored Jane Griffin, and possibly Frances, at Tredrea, Mary Ann Gilbert’s house that she brought to her marriage to Davies Gilbert. Mary Ann Gilbert was also something of an intellectual and used her connections to further her work with the poor. This was an extraordinary family into which Franklin married.

After passing to Mary Ann Gilbert, the moccasin had another journey to make. Stay tuned….

Finding out who F. Griffin and Mr Gilbert were, and why the moccasin should pass between them, has been an exciting chase involving a fair bit of genealogy, emails to Australia, tracking down obscure historical publications about Sussex, Bonhams Auctioneers sale listings, and the ever-helpful Dictionary of National Biography. I would also like to thank Claire Warrior, curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, who also works on Franklin expedition objects, for initially pointing me in the direction of Davies Giddy Gilbert, and Professor David Miller of the University of New South Wales, who confirmed the connections between the Griffins and Davies Giddy Gilbert’s family.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Narcisse Blood

Narcisse at the Blackfoot Shirts Conference, Pitt Rivers Museum, 2012

I am extremely sad to announce the sudden death of Kainai elder and teacher Narcisse Blood (Tatsikiistamik), who was a mentor to Pitt Rivers Museum staff since 2001 across the Kainai Photos Project and then the Blackfoot Shirts Project. He contributed the Foreword to Pictures Bring Us Messages, the book about the photographs project. Narcisse visited the Museum several times and came to open the PRM version of the Blackfoot shirts exhibition with his wife Alvine Mountain Horse and family. A filmmaker whose work was supported by the National Film Board of Canada, Narcisse contributed a video to the PRM exhibition as well as quotes, photographs, and overall guidance. Narcisse also assisted other museums in the UK and gave guest lectures at the University of Aberdeen as well as at Oxford.

Narcisse was a true scholar and the humblest man I ever met. He was exceptionally generous in supporting the Museum’s work in so many ways. Narcisse had a very gentle voice but also a tough, unwavering commitment to Blackfoot people, to the environment, and to improving cross-cultural relationships and understanding. These commitments led him to work on the Glenbow Museum’s collaboratively-produced Blackfoot gallery, to serve on the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Foundation and to teach at Red Crow Tribal College, to encourage those who participated in traditional Blackfoot ceremonial ways and to support outsiders as we began to learn about Blackfoot culture.

When interviewed about the Blackfoot Shirts Project, and the hard reality for Blackfoot people that many Blackfoot heritage items are held in museums in the UK, Narcisse said,

My question is “Preservation for who?” If the preservation of these shirts would serve the purpose of bridging the gap that exists in how we understand each other, then it is worthwhile to preserve them.  But they haven’t done that.
As museums, if you are teaching, then why is there still such misunder-standing? Why is there still so much ignorance [in] Blackfoot territory? 
So it begs that question: “Who are you preserving them for?”

Thank you, Narcisse, for giving so many of us so much to think about. Thank you for teaching us, for your friendship and support and enthusiasm and vision.

Condolences to Alvine Mountain Horse, Narcisse’s wife, and to their family. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Captain Franklin's moccasin: really?

There are amazingly evocative things in the PRM collections, and none less so than this single moccasin, 1997.19.27:

PRM 1997.19.27, Franklin's moccasn

It comes with the wonderful hand-written tag stitched into the wraparound upper that reads,

Brought by my Brother in law xxCaptn Franklin from the Esquimaux Country in 1827 and given to me F. Griffin
(xxSir John Franklin)
& by Miss Griffin given to Mr [possibly Mrs] Gilbert Nov’r 23rd 1828

Captain John Franklin, the Arctic explorer, no less! Over the next few weeks, I’m going to use this object as an example of the many paths one can pursue in material culture research. What does the object itself tell us? Is the Franklin provenance true? Who were F. Griffin and Mrs Gilbert? How did the moccasin get from ‘the Esquimaux Country’ to the Pitt Rivers Museum? What is it decorated with? Why is there just one, and not a pair, and why might that be significant?

Doing history with objects remains a challenge for the historian. Objects pull our attention toward certain things—their materiality, their decoration—and away from others: we have no idea who the woman was who made this moccasin, how Franklin obtained it (if indeed the tag is correct), or what the relationship between them was. We tend to focus on the specific, marvelous thing rather than the big picture of history. Let’s see if we can work in both directions, though, and find out more about this specific, marvelous thing and about how it might tell us things about the big picture of history that the historian’s usual sources—archival documents—don’t. There are all kinds of mysteries here, and the possibility for !EXCITING DISCOVERIES!, so stay tuned! First up: a ‘close read’ of the label sewn into the moccasin. Who were the mysterious F. Griffin, and Mr (or Mrs) Gilbert?

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Great cover for a great book!

It's very exciting to have this glimpse of the long-awaited book on the Blackfoot Shirts Project! The publishers, Athabasca University Press in Canada, have done justice to the beauty of the shirts with the cover design. Now we are looking forward to seeing the proofs of the book in a few months! The book is very multivocal, with lots of sidebars, quotes, essays by project participants, and photographs telling the story of the project, so design will be important to convey the many messages. Watch this space...

Sunday, 28 September 2014

We are all researchers

Research on the box. Photograph by Laura Peers

Academics often think of themselves as professional researchers. We have research skills and experience gained over decades of trawling archives, museum collections and other repositories for bits of information that are then carefully assessed and pieced together to understand the past, or the nature of things.

Indigenous community researchers do all of these things, with an additional impetus and care that comes of needing to know. Community members doing research on treaties, historical material culture, art, language and history are driven by the same passion to know as all the academic researchers I have met, but also don’t usually have the luxury of not knowing that academics have. Indigenous researchers are driven not just by artistic or historical curiosity, but by the need to strengthen identity and culture, to heal from colonialism, and to fight for sovereignty. Ignorance of the details of history and culture don’t get you anywhere in such struggles.

I’ve seen this over the years working with many Indigenous researchers, so it has made sense to me that after carving all day every days for the past three weeks, Gwaai and Jaalen go back to their rented apartment in Oxford in the evenings and search for information in books and online to explain the figures on the Great Box, the stories referred to, the authoritative sources for these stories, the provenance of this box, its relationship to other boxes. They have borrowed books, persuaded me to trawl the internet, emailed other people who might know, and raided online museum databases. In the process, they have identified several ‘sibling’ boxes, one of which was collected by Edmund Verney in the 1870s and is now in the British Museum. It seems to have come from the same artist because the front of the box shares several characteristic features with the PRM box.

On the last day of their trip to England, Gwaai and Jaalen are not taking a day off: they are going to London to see the Verney box, which British Museum staff are kindly removing from display for them. After their careful appraisal, informed by carvers’ eyes, we will be a bit closer to understanding the origins of the box they have worked with so closely for the past month.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


two weeks in…
(photograph by Laura Peers)

Two weeks on in the Great Box Project, and many late nights later, the new box is really taking shape. We had a chance to photograph both boxes together when Gwaai and Jaalen gave a talk to Museum staff. It was wonderful to bring all the different parts of the museum—administration, conservation, education, front of house, technical services, curatorial—and be in the same room listening to Haida perspectives on the Great Box and on the project. We all walk past the Great Box in its case quite often: we’ll never see it in quite the same way again. Hearing about plans for when the new box goes home to Haida Gwaii was also exciting. Gwaai and Jaalen are not trying to finish the whole box here at PRM. Taking it back unfinished, and working with other artists at home to finish it, and then using the box in their theatre and animation production company rather than making it a museum piece, will be part of the whole process of disseminating knowledge.