Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Samuel Black's Bag (PRM 1893.67.183)

PRM 1893.67.183

Some objects pull you back to them every time you see them, no matter how many years you’ve looked at them. For me, this is one such object. It’s an embroidered and beaded cloth bag made for Samuel Black, from Aberdeen in Scotland, who became a fur trader in western Canada. He had two successive wives—probably the daughters of senior fur traders and their Aboriginal wives—and a number of children. Although his marriages  were not legitimated in church, he abided by the fur trade custom of marriage ‘according to the custom of the country,’ which involved treating an Aboriginal or Metis woman as a legitimate wife. His will was contested by his Scottish family, who saw his children as illegitimate.

Black was not an easy man. George Simpson, the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, described him as 'the strangest man I ever knew...A perfectly honest man and his generosity might be considered indicative of a warmth of heart if he was not known to be a cold blooded fellow who could be guilty of any Cruelty and would be a perfect Tyrant if he had power...Has not the talent of conciliating Indians by whom he is disliked'. In fact, he was murdered by an Aboriginal man in early 1841. Nevertheless, some woman loved him enough to make him this extraordinary bag. It has his name on one side—extraordinary in itself, because at least one of Black’s daughters signed various documents with the x that indicates illiteracy, and it seems likely that none of his 'country' family was literate. Even more extraordinary is the design worked on the reverse of the bag, on the side worn next to the body: a heart motif. This is not the usual urn and spray of flowers motif one usually sees on such items; hearts are uncommon. Made probably by one of Black’s daughters of mixed ancestry, I think it means what most of us would think it means: it’s a symbol of love.

Detail, reverse, PRM 1893.67.183

And so, in exquisitely tiny stitches, the colours faded but still gorgeous, this woman’s embroidery still speaks: of love, of the bridges between cultures, of a life that moved from Scotland to fur posts and Aboriginal camps. When we say of museum objects, ‘it’s Cree’ or ‘it’s Chinese’ or ‘it’s Scottish,’ we don’t often think of such complex cultural paths. Our lives often have them, though, and it’s a reminder that people have always loved across cultural boundaries.

I’ve written more about the bag in various places:

2009 ‘Material Culture, Identity, and Colonial Society in the Canadian Fur Trade’. In Maureen Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds., Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies. Ashgate.

1999.  “ ‘Many Tender Ties’: The Shifting Contexts and Meanings of the S BLACK Bag.” World Archaeology, 31(2), fall 1999, 288-302.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Why the Pitt Rivers Museum is not a Hobbit Museum

Why the Pitt Rivers Museum is not a Hobbit Museum

I'm sure you know, of course, that hobbits have museums. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien says that hobbits have 'mathom-houses', for mathoms: things that are no longer used, but which one doesn’t wish to throw away. They are things filled with the vestiges of lives past and gone, and they accumulate, like fossils: mathoms are dead things.

The displays of the Pitt Rivers Museum look a bit like I imagine a mathom-house would look. It’s dark in there, and there are all sorts of old things. They aren’t actually used much, either: most of them are things from when people did things a different way, or with materials that aren’t used very much any more. The stocks from the village I live in are there, along with bows and arrows, quite a lot of archaic weapons, Samurai armor, shell armbands, string made of out bison hair, and capes made for the royal family of Hawaii which are completely covered in the bright feathers of now-extinct birds. None of this stuff is used any more in the sense it was originally intended to be used. The place is a mathom-house (though, alas, it does not contain the sword Sting).

And yet: jewelry designers come to look at jeweler from around the world. Basket makers can see, in one case, how basket makers around the world have solved the problem of going around corners and finishing rims, in many different media. Authors set stories here, both they and their characters taking inspiration from the maze of cases and their contents. Students come to draw: there’s no end to the things you can draw in this place.

And people come from the communities that the objects came from, to work with them. They come to learn. The ancestors may be gone from us, says one Blackfoot artist, but what they knew is embodied in the things they made, and if we study those things carefully, the ancestors will teach us through the objects. And not just how to make bison-hair string or use it to tie things together, or what they used to get that paint colour. The objects, their materials, their technical processes of making, are tied to people: the community and the social relations in which they were made, and the broader community of other-than-human persons in which they were made. The spirits of bison are in that string, along with an understanding of the proper way to show respect to bison relatives and maintain good relations with them. Making paints, in most North American indigenous societies, requires prayer. Paint is often sacred, used for protection against spiritual harm. You wear paint in ceremony where sacred powers are very strong. Ancestors wore it into battle for protection and success. These things are not ‘dead’—they work very powerfully in the present.

And so the collections are used to inspire creativity and learning in the present. They also provoke memory and cultural knowledge, and help to restore cultural practices, and thus to strengthen Indigenous identity in the present. This is not looking to the past to stay in the past; it is about knowing who you are today. This is not a mathom-house: these things are still very much in use.