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.

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: