Monday, 24 March 2014

The Great Box: Art and technology don’t always mix…





In order for carvers Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw to create a replica of this fantastic Haida box (PRM 1884.57.25), the Museum needs to provide an exact 1:1 photograph of each side so they can create stencils and prepare for carving.

Sounds simple, right?

Apparently this is a highly technical and difficult task, normally undertaken by the likes of forensic crime scene photographers who might have to match, say, a boot print to a boot. Fortunately PRM photographer Malcolm Osman, PhotoShop Wizard Extraordinaire, has sorted out complex equations, corrected for the angle of the original photograph he took (note to self: photograph it straight on next time…), and done an extra spell to address the curvature of the camera lens he took the photo with.

Heather Richardson, Head of Conservation at PRM, is shown here helping me measure the box. Measurements were translated into technical diagrams by Collections diva Madeline Ding, scanned and sent to Gwaai and Jaalen—who can now get on with milling the very large plank that will be used to make the new box.

Meanwhile we will wait and see whether our Test Photographic Print number 2 is exactly the number of millimetres high and wide that it needs to be…


Friday, 7 February 2014

The Great Box: re-learning through doing

The "Great Box" [PRM 1884.57.25]

Great news about the Great Box Project!


In 2009 a group of Haida carvers visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum were inspired, but also puzzled, by one large chest or box in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Said by several master carvers to be ‘in the upper stratosphere of Haida art’ (Robert Davidson, 2012), the box dates from the late 1800s. It would have been commissioned by a hereditary chief to hold clan treasures such as ritual masks and dance regalia.

Its artist demonstrates such a mastery of the formal rules of Haida art that he plays with these, twisting standard elements, tilting the planes of lines, and creating an unusually layered and dense integration of multiple elements in the design.

Gwaai Edenshaw:  Boxes are a good study of Haida formline.  They follow a certain set of conventions and they can easily be compared.  It is clear that the artist was a true master, exceptionally well versed in in the form. This single box has many innovations that we thought belonged to our modern day greats—an exciting, and humbling discovery. In addition, there are deviations from the norm contained in the form line. Examination also pulled up other quirks of innovation, or execution that were entirely new, some baffling, but in the context of the overall piece, the only logical conclusion is that we just don't get it, yet… We need a chance to spend more time with the box, tracing the lines and following the path that this old master did. 

The Haida group also noted that superb items such as the box are needed at home in Haida Gwaii to inspire artists to return the level of Haida art to such standards—impaired by the removal of masterpieces from Haida Gwaii through colonial policy, and the banning of the potlatch by the Canadian government—and ensure the art form continues to develop.

Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, brothers and carvers, wish to return to Oxford and study the Great Box further. To fully understand it, they wish to carve a new version of it, following the original design closely but also working their own understandings into the new one: an inspired, creative response to this piece which learns from, respects, and goes beyond the historic version.

Learning by doing is an established way of working for Haida artists, and for non-Haida carvers as well. While working with the Great Box in 2009, Gwaai Edenshaw noted ‘what a difference it makes to view things tactilely’ as part of the learning process. Feeling the tilted planes of ovoids and u-forms—standard elements in Haida art—was helpful in understanding the box’s artist’s (or artists’) mastery of formal expectations of line and space within Haida art. Carving and painting a new version of the box alongside the original for reference would be the next step in reclaiming this mastery of vision and technique.


I am delighted to say that the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK has now provided funding through its Impact Accelation Account for Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaalen Edenshaw to come to Oxford and the project to go ahead. They will carve a new version of the Great Box, which will return to Haida Gwaii to be an inspiration for other artists there. The activities on Haida Gwaii will be facilitated by the Haida Gwaii Museum, which will also continue the Pitt Rivers Museum's ongoing relationship with this amazing community resource. We’ll be working with public audiences in Oxford and holding knowledge-sharing sessions on Haida Gwaii, and making a few video podcasts about the project process. Exciting times ahead: watch this space!

Friday, 31 January 2014

"Source Communities"



Back in July 2013, at the Future of EthnographicMuseums conference, the excellent Wayne Modest spoke about the way racism and colonialism seem to haunt ethnographic museums, and the extraordinary institutional amnesia most museums seem to have about their histories, and the role these histories played in constructing colonial relationships of power. It was a thought-provoking presentation. As part of his querying of issues of power in museums, Modest problematized the term ‘source communities’, asking how museum engagements with such communities might conscript them to a status of difference vis a vis the mainstream audiences which remain the staple ones for museums, and which fund museums.

In 2003, Alison Brown and I published Museums and Source Communities, a reader of newly commissioned and republished articles about the relationships between museums and the communities that their collections come from. The volume was UK-oriented, and we hoped it would help to strengthen the sense of responsibility between museums in the UK and the mostly overseas (but now often immigrant) communities whose material heritage is cared for and displayed in those museums. We realized that access to those historic treasures is crucial for maintaining identity for certain groups, and indeed for aspects of cultural survival. Given the physical and political distance between museums in the UK and those communities, we were concerned that museums in the UK did not take this relationship seriously. At a conference, I once asked a deputy director of the British Museum whether he understood that communities of origin might have greater need to access their material heritage than, say, London audiences, and might require more institutional and staff resources spent on meeting those needs. He said no, he didn’t see that, and thought that all audiences should be treated alike, that to do otherwise would be discriminatory.

For the book, we chose the term ‘source communities,’ rather than ‘communities of origin’ or other possible terms, as a convenient and deliberately direct term, hoping to see it become part of ordinary professional language and thinking. It has done so. UK museums have shifted tremendously across the past decade, embracing the concept of special relations with source communities and engaging in many special projects with these communities. The idea that museum collections can play special roles in marginalized communities, or might have social or biomedical or therapeutic healing properties, has also been extensively researched. Concepts of audiences and access have been debated and museums have begun to try to diversify their audiences in serious ways. The profession has really moved on.


The term ‘source community’ has been critiqued by some Indigenous people as implying an extractive relationship. As Brown and I noted in the introduction to Museums and Source Communities, that is precisely what the nature of the relationship was historically. Is it still so today? Have the attempts to create relationships of greater equality made ‘source community’ an awkward term in the present? I’m not so sure. I still favor the directness of the term, the implication of deep and ineradicable tensions and relationships between the partners involved.  And in answer to Modest, I think I’d say that there is still need of a concept of ‘special relationship’ between museums and these communities, so long as the material heritage housed by museums is still desperately needed for cultural survival. Yes, that’s a status of difference, but one I think will be necessarily with us for some time.

Friday, 15 November 2013

To sew is to pray: wise words from Louise Erdrich





Indigenous repair detail, Blackfoot shirt, Pitt Rivers Museum 1893.67.3


I work with historic First Nations and Native American material culture, and am drawn to beaded, embroidered, and appliquéd items. They say so much about the lives of the women who created them.

I recently found this quote by Native author Louise Erdrich that fits the moccasins, bags, coats, leggings, and so many other things that have found their way into museum collections so well:

“To sew is to pray. Men don't understand this. They see the whole but they don't see the stitches. They don't see the speech of the creator in the work of the needle. We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right. We salvage what we can of human garments and piece the rest into blankets. Sometimes our stitches stutter and slow. Only a woman's eyes can tell. Other times, the tension in the stitches might be too tight because of tears, but only we know what emotion went into the making. Only women can hear the prayer.” 






All in a day's work

I am exceptionally fortunate to work with colleagues in collections management and conservation who are so experienced in facilitating research with indigenous peoples. We are currently preparing for the visit next week of a Maori delegation from the Ngā Paerangi iwi. They are coming to reconnect with taonga ('tribal heirlooms') in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

We have spent the past few weeks setting up the visit with Michelle Horwood, a doctoral student from New Zealand who has organized the delegation. Michelle has advised us on Maori protocol and how it might shape our welcome of the group, the way the research visit might work, the difficulties we might encounter, and the special things we might need to consider to make things go well.

We have found a suitable bowl to hold water for ritual cleansing, and will find a way to place that near the research space. We have thought about how to structure the welcome in such a way that it respects Maori expectations and meets our needs for the sharing of information about the week. We have drafted student assistants to act as helpers and tour guides. We have warned colleagues that our visitors may weep, sing, and wail as they encounter ancestors in the form of taonga, and that this is part of the process of the visit, along with joy and quite probably a certain amount of bewilderment.

Everyone has pitched in for this. Everyone will, next week. It’s an amazing feeling to work in a place where this is just what we do. Yes, we have had a fair bit of work to feel like we understand what needs to happen and yes, some of this will have to be worked out as we go along—but no one questions the need to work with Maori cultural protocol or the diplomatic, very special nature of this visit. It seems like the entire institution ‘gets it’, which is a rare museum indeed. I teach on these aspects of museum anthropology, but this visit is not being organized by me: it’s everyone in the museum, and I'm just showing up to welcome our guests and then learn. Which is, really, what we’ll all be doing next week.


Just saying this is a great place to be, and a privilege to work here.