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.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Captain Franklin’s moccasin: many mysteries solved!

Captain Franklin’s moccasin: many mysteries solved!

So, back to the mysteries of the moccasin…There are far more clues with this object than are normally found with museum collections! One of the best is a note from the donor in the Museum’s “related documents file” for the collection. The RDF, as it is known in the Museum, is where we put all the correspondence related to acquiring objects and any bits and bobs of notes that come in with objects. The RDF for the moccasin includes a handwritten note by someone in the donor’s family:



"4 shoes, knife set, 2 chop sticks? bone implements, money maps etc bought by Mother at Gawdy Hall sale 1938-9? Some or all are connected with the Franklin expedition Esquimo"

Really, you don’t get much better than this in museum research!

We know that the moccasin was given by Frances Griffin to Mary Ann Gilbert, her aunt by marriage. We also know, thanks to this note, that the moccasin was purchased at the sale at Gawdy Hall, and we know from research on the Gawdy Hall sale that it occurred in July 1938.

So how did the moccasin get from its second owner, Mary Ann Gilbert, to Gawdy Hall? 

Mary Ann Gilbert married Davies Giddy Gilbert in 1808. Their surviving children were John Davies Gilbert, who like his father became an important Fellow of the Royal Society and its president, and three daughters, Catherine, Anne, and Hester Elizabeth, cousins of the Griffin sisters.

More clues are found in a local history volume, Eastbourne Memories, by George F. Chambers (1910), a fine gossipy book which reads very much as an extended oral account of one man’s reminiscences. It contains a very helpful anecdote describing the author’s connection with the extended Gilbert family, including Hester—and Lady Franklin:

The East-Bourne house was occupied during many years by Mrs. Sancroft Holmes, Mr. J. D. Gilbert's widowed sister, and her son and four daughters. During that occupation I was a frequent visitor there and made the acquaintance of two ladies the widows of two men who had at the middle of the 19th Century occupied very prominent positions in the public eye, Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth and Sir John Franklin. …Mrs. Holmes afterwards went to live in Norfolk, and died there in 1885. Her son, Mr. J. S. Holmes, is a landed proprietor in Norfolk, living at Gawdy Hall, near Harleston. (p14-15, italics mine)

So John Davies Gilbert’s sister Hester went on to be Mrs Sancroft Holmes, and lived after her widowhood with her children at the Davies Gilbert family home in Eastbourne, Gildredge Manor. Jane, Lady Franklin, visited her cousin there. And Hester, who was Mrs Sancroft Holmes, had close ties by marriage to Gawdy Hall. Doing a bit of research around these bits of information reveals that Hester married William Sancroft Holmes in 1840, and was widowed in 1849.

It was through cousin Hester’s marriage that the moccasin ended up in the Gawdy Hall sale. William Sancroft Holmes, her husband, was born there in 1815. George Chambers noted that Hester’s son, ‘Mr. J. S. Holmes, is a landed proprietor in Norfolk, living at Gawdy Hall, near Harleston,’ which would have been because he inherited it from his father. It makes perfect sense that he would have taken his widowed mother there with him in her old age. At some time during her married life, Hester took the moccasin to Gawdy Hall, where it entered the collections there before she died in 1885.

So after Frances’ gift of the moccasin to Mary Ann Gilbert, it came into the possession of Mary Ann’s daughter Hester. And sometime between then and Hester’s death in 1885, the moccasin must have passed to her son, who took it to his home, Gawdy Hall.

Hester’s husband William Sancroft Holmes had something of a collection, mostly of African weapons and other miscellaneous ethnographic objects. At some point he lent it briefly for a display—the location and purpose fo this is unknown, but it came back to Gawdy Hall with small handwritten labels. One of these now in the Museum’s RDF is written on the back of his calling card:




It didn’t stay there, though, because Gawdy Hall, everything in it, and the entire estate was sold at auction in July 1938. Hester and Wiliam’s son, John Sancroft Holmes, died in 1920; the Hall required extensive repair by then and the heirs decided it was too expensive. There’s an amazing auction bill for the sale at the English Heritage Archive, listing everything to be sold: Gawdy Hall and its gardens, glasshouses, and stables, three lodges near the Hall, 5 farms, four sets of cottages, and associated properties, were all sold at auction. It was there that the moccasin was purchased by the man who gave it to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

But how did the moccasin get to Captain John Franklin in the first place? Stay tuned…

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. For a recap on part 1, see here.

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?