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:

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Ceremony to release a robe from the loom

One of the many things I love about Haida culture is the appreciation of finely made works of art. Evelyn Vanderhoop, a master weaver, has finished a robe in the Naaxiin style, a replica of an old Haida robe now in the museum in Victoria, B.C. It is the only robe she knows of (and she is a serious researcher, having visited many museum collections to examine old robes) that features a box design on it, so I talked with her about the piece during my recent trip to Haida Gwaii.

The community is having a ceremony to release the robe from the loom, and dance it into the Haida world, before the robe leaves for the purchaser's home in the United States. The ceremony will be held at the Haida Gwaii Museum, reminding us also that museums can play central roles in communities, cherishing and making material heritage accessible.

I wish I could attend the ceremony, and want to say congratulations to Evelyn on the completion of a masterpiece.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Visiting the Great Box at home

Haida Gwaii, July 2016. Photograph by Laura Peers.

When there are long-term, established relationships between museums and communities, grant-funded projects enable both partners to fulfil key goals, take things in new directions, and spend time together to renew and strengthen ties. The Great Box project is a wonderful example of this.

The Haida Nation and the Pitt Rivers Museum have worked together since 1998, and formalized their relationship in 2009 with the visit of a very large Haida delegation to PRM to work with all 301 Haida objects and establish permanent relationships around the collection for mutual benefit. In 2010, PRM returned an ancestral remain to Haida Gwaii. Artists have come to PRM each year to learn from the collections and to teach Museum staff. Educational programmes at PRM have benefited tremendously from input by Haida curators and artists over the years.

Gwaai and Jaalen asked to do the Great Box project to learn from the historic artist and take that knowledge home with the new version of the box. The new box was shipped home for completion in October 2014 and immediately sparked many conversations amongst artists. It was also used to teach box design to high school students, and a formal unveiling event was held for it at the Haida Gwaii Museum in March. It has been on display there since.

With support from the ESRC Knowledge Exchange Dialogues fund and Linacre College, I was able to visit the box at home in Haida Gwaii last month, and catch up with Jaalen, Gwaai and other Haida friends and colleagues. Jaalen and I did a presentation to community members in the inspiring Performance Space of the Kay Llnagaay HeritageCentre adjacent to the Haida Gwaii Museum. Many people made the hour-long drive from Masset to see the box again and to discuss what we had learned from the project.

Laura Peers (R) and Jaalen Edenshaw (at R by box) in discussion with community members about the
Great Box project, July 2015. Photograph by Geoff Horner.

I also worked with Nika Collison, curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum, to begin planning another series of projects that comes out of the Great Box: an exhibition and book about Haida traditions of box-making. Nika kindly asked many community members if they would talk to me about this and I spent much of my time on island having great discussions with extremely knowledgeable people, from senior artists to a man who makes bentwood box coffins for community members to a woman who brought box-making into a program for youth. Everyone was extremely supportive of taking the project into these directions, and we also talked about how to make the process most useful for Haida artists. We hope to find funding also to hold workshops associated with this next step in which people can view historic boxes, talk about what makes great box design, and actually make boxes. The project needs to fulfil community needs and goals to take the relationship forward. There are many ways such activities would also benefit both museums involved.

We also talked about the major implication to come ‘out of the box’ from the Great Box project: the need for more artists to have direct access to more historic treasures so that this scale and depth of knowledge repatriation can happen. That’s what I’ll talk about next.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Frank and the pipe

Curators who work with Indigenous communities find themselves in between contradictory expectations and needs from their museum colleagues and community members. This is never a comfortable place to be, but it can be a space for learning.

Museums assume that physical preservation is the key goal for collections. Access to collections is also a key goal, but ‘access’ is usually defined as exhibition [behind glass], or through online images and information [digital/visual access] is sufficient, enabling them to continue to privilege physical preservation of objects.

These forms of access are insufficient for many Indigenous communities, especially regarding sacred items. People need to touch items to reconnect with ancestral knowledge and to strengthen identity in the present. People need to pray with sacred items to strengthen communities in the present. When access is denied by museums to such items, communities call for repatriation.

Blackfoot people have worked tirelessly for decades now to repatriate sacred items for use in ceremonies. Pipes, sacred bundles, and many items have been recovered and are used and cared for. The ceremonies in which these items are used have been passed down even through the most difficult eras. A great deal of love and self-sacrifice goes into caring for sacred items: you have to behave respectfully around them, pray with them daily, run the home in which they are kept very carefully.

And these items give back to the community. Sick people are brought up to them to be blessed during ceremonies. People ask the spirits associated with sacred items for strength, for healing, for help. People who did not grow up speaking Blackfoot learn the language in order to participate in ceremonies and to care for sacred items properly. Young people who might get into teenage trouble choose to join the sacred societies and learn and practice traditional values and ways of life instead.

Many items used in Blackfoot ceremonies now have been repatriated from museums, and still have their museum accession numbers painted on them.  When I am able to attend ceremonies, I note these numbers with some amusement, and with a poignant sense of rightness: things are back in their right place, where they are understood and loved. These ceremonies are what the government and the churches tried to stamp out. The transfer of sacred items out of communities and into museums was part of that process of enforced assimilation. The transfer of such items back into community hands has been part of the healing process for Blackfoot people.

One time I was at a ceremony and the late Frank Weasel Head was assisting with it. At a certain point in the ceremony he came outside the tipi in which the ceremony was being conducted, holding a sacred pipe, to pray with it outdoors. The pipe looked to my curatorial eyes to be 18th century: it was wrapped in long braids of porcupine quills and was one of the old, long-stemmed ones. Frank’s hands were covered in red paint, made of bison fat and red mineral ochre, for spiritual protection, which is part of Blackfoot ceremonies. For a moment, my curatorial self fretted: he’s getting paint and fat all over the quillwork! We’ll never be able to clean it! That’s an 18th century pipe, it should be in a museum!

And then I saw the number painted on the side of the pipe. It had been in a museum. It had come home. Frank was using it for precisely what it had been made for. He was praying with it. He was praying really hard, begging for help for the sick people at the ceremony, thanking the Creator for life, thanking the beings who had brought us all together for the ceremony, asking for strength for everyone. Suddenly my mind shifted, and I understood that he was using the pipe with incredible respect and with tremendous love: that this was the right way to handle the pipe. The paint on the quillwork was evidence of that respect and love: it was not damage. It was very humbling. He was praying very intensely, and I didn’t think he saw me, which felt right, as I was a visitor and felt lucky just to be sitting on the outside edge of things. I didn’t want to distract him from important work for his own people.

After the ceremony, Frank sought me out. It had been a long day for him and he was very tired, but he marched up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me gently, and said: ‘Now do you understand why sometimes, some things have to come home?’ He had seen me, and he had seen that shift in my perception. I am grateful to him. I have never looked at museum objects in the same way since.

Every time I see things in the museum, I wonder whether the communities they come from have ever seen them since they left. I wonder how to bring things back together with the communities they came from, and think about how much might be achieved by doing so. They don't all have to leave the museum, and they don't have to leave forever. There are so many possibilities.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Loss of a mentor and great man

I’m very sad to announce the passing of Kainai ceremonial leader and elder, Frank Weasel Head, who has been a strong mentor to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Frank worked with us on the Kainai Photos Project, advising us as a member of the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Foundation. He helped Alison Brown and myself to work in a fully collaborative way with Kainai people so that the project served Kainai needs as well as the terms of the UK research council grant funding it—and he helped us to work out how to do that. Andy Blackwater and the late Narcisse Blood also played key roles in that project, ultimately leading to the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Mookaakin Foundation and PRM. Along the way, Frank was always there to support us, teach us, and tease us.

Frank Weasel Head, Terran Kipp Last Gun wearing a replica shirt made by Sylvia
Weasel Head and Frank Weasel Head, and one of the ancestors [PRM 1893.67.2]

A few years later, we had a chance to bring both Frank and Andy to Oxford, and we showed them the Blackfoot shirts in the storage area. We pulled one shirt out of the storage drawer onto a table, and opened the drawer so they could see the others.

They touched the shirts gently in the drawer, feeling down through the layers, and realized how many there were, how old they were, their powerful presence. They fell silent for several minutes: I had never before seen Frank at a loss for words. Then they had a conversation in Blackfoot, and then we had a very interesting conversation about the shirt on the table, which they examined very closely.

The next day, Frank and Andy spoke to the staff and students of the Museum. As he explained his reaction to the shirts in his talk, Frank said: ‘You have five of these. I have never seen even one. My children have never seen one. My grandchildren have never seen one. And what are you going to do about that?’

Out of that moment the Blackfoot Shirts Project was born. Frank led that project in many ways, consulting with people in his community, helping us to establish how to work with Blackfoot sacred protocols and the shirts, encouraging us to attend ceremonies, mentoring us, teasing us ferociously, and saying hard things when needed. He was always there for us when we needed an interview or a quote. His extraordinarily gifted and polished style of speaking—direct, to the point, honest, and powerful—was effective in meetings and in exhibition quotes, and I always admired his ability to get to the point and solve problems.

Along the way, I came to have tremendous respect for Frank. For years, if I needed to speak to him, I had to catch him early in the morning before he left the house for a day’s meetings, committee work, or consulting: in ‘retirement’ he worked tirelessly for his community. I so enjoyed watching him at ceremonies, ensuring that everything was done right, encouraging younger ceremonialists, making sure that hesitant visitors like myself were brought in and had our faces painted for blessing. His arthritis meant that the long flights from Alberta to the UK left him in considerable physical discomfort, but he was always keen to come over and help, to work with staff and students. I am so grateful for that: he helped to teach a generation of museum professionals in the UK about community perspectives on heritage items in collections here. He helped to change museums here. I shall miss him terribly. On behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum, I would like to express our sincere condolences to his wife Sylvia and to his extended family.