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:

Monday, 4 July 2016

Uneven consultation

Museum anthropologists always look for the politics in the relations between museums and indigenous peoples, the relations of power, what is unsaid as well as what is said. In the last few weeks, there have been several articles in Canadian media sources about B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s call for the return of objects to BC. The most recent ones [] clarified that the Haida nation was not consulted about this call before it went out. The reason that the Haida Nation was deliberately excluded from Clark’s ‘consultation’ process on the repatriation issue is because Clark supports oil and gas development, and the Haida oppose it. Clark’s dramatic call for returns of heritage materials, and ‘consultation’ process, is a means of building an Aboriginal support base in BC despite her intent to proceed with oil and gas development that would permanently damage lands and resources on which Aboriginal people depend for survival. It might also be seen as an attempt to build a support base of non-Aboriginal people who would then dismiss Aboriginal concerns about energy and sovereignty (‘what else do they want? We’ve given them their stuff back!’).

The Haida Nation has the best track record for repatriation of all Aboriginal nations in Canada; they have brought home nearly 500 ancestral remains. They have done so in a thoughtful, respectful way that has enabled them to build constructive bridges with museums. Other Aboriginal nations, and the Province, would benefit from working with the Haida Repatriation Committee to discuss their experience ( Museums and Indigenous peoples can work together productively around repatriation: as I have learned, largely from Haida people, everyone benefits from such relationships. Repatriation is necessary in many cases. Getting material heritage circulating through loans is also necessary: many Aboriginal communities don’t have facilities to care permanently for material heritage, but access can be provided in many ways. And whatever stance one might take on the oil/gas industry, access to heritage items is too important to Aboriginal survival to be caught up in this kind of political game.

If Premier Clark is serious about providing access to material heritage held in museums outside the country for Aboriginal peoples, I would invite her office to consider funding the first loan from UK museums to the Haida Gwaii Museum. There are important early historic collections of Haida material heritage in the UK, and we need to find a way to make them accessible to Haida people. To get rolling, this project will need between £15-20K to pay for standard loan fees (c.£6K to Haida Gwaii), a new case for the Haida Gwaii Museum that provides enhanced environmental controls and security for international loans, and time and costs for a museum staff member to stay for a few weeks and facilitate handling sessions out of case before placing the item on display. Once the program is up and running, it will be much less expensive to run. Objects can be rotated every few years and can provide access to the tens of thousands of B.C. Aboriginal artefacts in museums around the world, while strengthening relationships between those nations and museums to improve public interpretation. 

Everyone needs access to material heritage. Let’s find creative solutions that strengthen relationships in the process.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Great Box Project wins a prize!

So excited to say that the Great Box Project has won an inaugural University of Oxford Vice Chancellor's Award for Public Engagement with Research! We won in the 'collaboration' category, as the project linked Haida people in designing the project and its outcomes.

Part of the work that museum anthropology does is linking collections and the communities that the collections came from—and showing to the public, and to one’s own institution, why such reconnections matter, how they benefit us all. It’s really nice to have some recognition from the University of Oxford that this kind of work does matter in a university context.

And it’s a jolly great project!

Professor Laura Peers wins Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research 2016

The Pitt Rivers Museum is delighted to announce that Professor Laura Peers has won a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research. These awards, inaugurated in early 2016 and announced on 1 July 2016, recognise and reward those who undertake high-quality public engagement with research and have contributed to building capacity in this area. Professor Peers won an award in the Project category with the outstanding Great Box project, a partnership project with the Haida Gwaii Museum and artists Jaalen Edenshaw and Gwaii Edenshaw. Further information about the award 

Thursday, 28 April 2016

A moose-hide banyan?

A hide coat in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum has been sparking a great deal of interest lately. Obtained from a local Oxford dealer of 'antiquities' in 1906, this amazing coat is in what we believe is traditionally tanned moose-hide, with stylised painted designs around the hem, porcupine quillwork on the back, and a flamboyant wool brocade facing.
PRM 1906.83.1

PRM 1906.83.1 back

The coat is cut in a style reminiscent of a banyan, a type of garment brought back to Britain from India in the eighteenth century and popularized as a comfortable, warm indoor garment.

This makes it a garment of multiple cultural affiliations. Did a British man bring a cloth banyan to Hudson’s Bay and have it reworked in hide for wearing inside a cold, drafty fur post? The coat’s quillwork and moose-hide remind us of the cross-cultural marriages and creative hybridity at the heart of fur trade society in what is now Canada.

To better understand the coat’s cut and its relationship to other European men’s garments of the early 19th century, PRM has had several students with textile and fashion expertise create a pattern from the original garment. The latest version, by Charlotte Linton, has refined earlier attempts and will now be duplicated so that we can send the pattern to costume experts and to First Nations seamstresses. Cross-cultural objects require cross-cultural research methodologies!

Sewing pattern for PRM 1906.83.1 by Charlotte Linton

 As part of this process of learning, the banyan has been studied by the Object Lives group, a scholarly network which focuses on objects that move across cultural boundaries. Our blog post about the coat, and the Object Lives website, can be found here. We’ll be thinking about it again next week at a group research session in Montreal, as we prepare a virtual exhibition from the group’s collaborative, multinational, cross-cultural approach to exciting objects such as this.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Haida reflections on Haida art: Oxford lecture by Nika Collison and Gwaai Edenshaw

I'm delighted to say that this year's Canada Seminar at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford will be given by Nika Collison and Gwaai Edenshaw on 12 February. Nika, who is the curator at the excellent Haida Gwaii Museum, and Gwaai, artist and co-creator of the new 'Great Box,' will be reflecting on Haida art.

Lady Margaret Hall has in its art collection a print by renowned Haida artist Bill Reid. Nika is Bill's granddaughter, and Gwaai was Bill's final apprentice. They will both offer thoughts on Bill Reid, on Haida art, and (I hope) on the wonderful support they have offered to the Pitt Rivers Museum over the years.

Staff, students and visitors at the Pitt Rivers Museum have learned so much from working with Haida people over the years. I am very grateful that Gwaai and Nika are able to come to Oxford to give the seminar and to continue their work here. This is, I think, the first time that First Nations people have given the lecture and it should be a very special evening.

Please join us!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Haida treasures in museums, Haida treasures on loan

This image shows the Star House frontal pole from Masset, Haida Gwaii, in the Pitt Rivers Museum last week, together with a projected digital image of the pole in situ before its removal from Masset. 

[Historic photograph PRM 1998.473.1, by Bertram Buxton. Masset, Haida Gwaii, 
Canada, 1882; image of photograph in Pitt Rivers Museum by Laura Peers]

Museum staff added the digital projector to the Clore Learning Balcony in the Museum’s main space some years ago, and we use this and other images when we have special events for tours, special lectures and school groups. It helps to explain something of the original contexts and meanings of the pole, and to discuss the importance of the Haida collections in the Museum and the Museum’s relationships with Haida communities today.

While this image helps to make those links, its the juxtaposition with the pole and the visual spectacle of the museum space also underscores the removal of the pole and its presence in a museum collection. The historic displays in the Pitt Rivers Museum can evoke colonial histories very easily. We don’t want to celebrate those histories: we want to comment on them and critique them.

We are also conscious that Museum staff and visitors are privileged to be able to view and take inspiration from extraordinary Haida ancestral treasures, and that most Haida people cannot do the same. While we welcome Haida delegations periodically, and have put images of all 301 Haida treasures in the collections online, we know—and regret—that most Haida people will never make it to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Nor will they be able to view the tens of thousands of historic Haida treasures in museums across the UK and Europe. Online collections are a start, but they don’t work for carvers, weavers and other makers who need to see details that are seldom photographed, and for whom photography flattens the 3-dimensional realities of objects. As Haida master carver Christian White pointed out to us some years ago, you can’t tell the depth of carving from a photograph.

People have both a right and a need to access their material heritage. In the case of Indigenous people, access to material heritage is crucial to maintaining culture, to strengthening identity, and to survival. Not being able to have access to material heritage is a continuation of colonial relations of power. If museums are socially responsible institutions, they need to be responsible to communities of origin as well as to local audiences, and they need to create greater access to material heritage for those communities.

I am therefore pleased to say that the Pitt Rivers Museum is working with the Haida Gwaii Museum, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, to prepare for loans from UK collections to Haida Gwaii. It would be a huge step toward access to get Haida objects circulating through the Haida Gwaii Museum every few years, to provide continual inspiration and learning for Haida people. It will certainly benefit all the museums involved. There are many UK museums with significant collections of Haida treasures and we will be inviting them to participate in this program.

This will be expensive and we will have to fundraise: it currently costs about £6,000 to get one object from the UK to Vancouver, and then there is an additional journey by air, ferry and truck to the Haida Gwaii Museum. Given airline schedules, we will have to break the journey in Vancouver, so the partnership with MOA is key, and will give MOA the opportunity to stage events with Haida people living in the Vancouver area. We will be asking couriers to facilitate guided hands-on sessions for small groups of Haida people in Vancouver and Haida Gwaii before they place items in display cases: it will take specially-trained couriers to do that, and UK museums will have to learn how to do so. We will probably have to fundraise for a special, secure case for the Haida Gwaii Museum to satisfy international lending criteria involving security, humidity and temperature.

We will all benefit from this: UK museums will learn from Haida people and share information to audiences in the UK, Haida people will learn from ancestral treasures, and we will strengthen ties between communities. Are you interested in being part of this project, or in supporting it in some way? Please contact me at: