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.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Racism, violence against women, and museums: Walking With Our Sisters

In his recent address to 'The Future of Ethnographic Museums' conference, Wayne Modest asked what role museums play within the government apparatus of minority exclusion. He stated that the refusal to acknowledge and articulate racism within the museum, and within the society that creates and funds the museum, is a deliberate stance. The absence of voice is an active institutional and political turning away from certain experiences. Modest was focusing on the colonial histories of racism attached to the acquisition of ethnographic objects, few of which are ever displayed within the context of such ongoing histories, but there are other silences and absences seldom acknowledged in public representation. One of these—the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women—is at last being addressed, through a powerful exhibition that will be displayed across Canada—but not in mainstream museums.

In Canada, it is estimated that over 600 Aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered in the last 20 years. There are strong calls for a federal government inquiry into the issue. This is part of a larger pattern of violence against Aboriginal women, both by outsiders as the result of racism and by Aboriginal men experiencing pathological effects of colonialism: the effects of internalized racism.

‘Walking With Our Sisters,’ a project begun by Aboriginal artist Christi Belcourt, has involved mass public participation in the creation of over 1700 moccasin tops for display across Canada. The moccasin tops, or vamps, were used historically by Aboriginal women as a small area for exquisite needlework, to honor the person wearing the moccasins. Artists who have sent vamps for Walking With Our Sisters include many Aboriginal people, but also women from all over the world: Aberdeen, Australia, Israel.

Many of the vamps are in traditional tribal styles, exquisitely beaded or decorated with porcupine quills. Others feature angels, angel wings, crosses, tears, names and dates. Some are in unusual media: birchbark, paper. They are all poignant and powerful, and honour each missing women--and all of them.

The exhibition tour ‘sold out’ very rapidly. Intriguingly, the strong list of venues includes not one big 'mainstream' museum with historic ethnographic collections. Cultural centres, art galleries, community halls, most located in or near Aboriginal communities. But not the Canadian Museum of Civilization, not the ROM, not Glenbow or the Royal Alberta Museum. I can understand why; this about allowing Aboriginal people to grieve, in part. I wish it had a set of larger, ‘mainstream’ venues, though. It would be a powerful challenge to mainstream audiences, and to the legacies of colonialism in museums that still operate today.

It’s a fantastic exhibition and project, and I urge you to explore the vamps and check the exhibit schedule online at the Walking With Our Sisters website and Facebook pages.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Visitor Evaluation in the Blackfoot Shirts Project Exhibition: Reflections, by Cherry Jackson

Map of visitor movements in the exhibition

Very soon, we'll start analysing the layers of data we have gathered from visitors to the Blackfoot Shirts Project exhibition at PRM. As you can see from this map, we've been interested to know how much information visitors take away with them, how much of the exhibition they experience, read and view, whether they watched Narcisse Blood's video (they did!), and what they thought when they left. Since we had over 35,000 visitors to the exhibition, we were able to work with a selection of these, of all ages and backgrounds. Thank you to Eliana Ritts, a student in the Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology degree, who designed the evaluation, and Cherry Jackson, an Archaeology and Anthropology undergraduate, who did most of the work with visitors. Student power!

I asked Cherry to reflect on her experiences. Here are her thoughts:

"Now that the exhibition has ended, it gives me the chance of providing an overview of my time doing visitor evaluation of the exhibition during August 2013. This involved me sitting just outside the exhibit on those long wooden benches, mapping the movements of those who dared to venture in, or mobbing whichever unlucky person I had decided I wanted to interview on the way out.

Apart from getting cold (that exhibition space is freezing, unlike the rest of the museum) I really enjoyed watching how people used the space and their reactions to what was in front of them. I weirdly managed to interview loads of North Americans with a great in depth knowledge of the Blackfoot people! You got some…erm…different reactions. Most went on about how cool the shirts were, but there was one man who said they were hideous. It was very hard not to say, “Well, I think you’re wrong!” Or words to that effect.

When I told my friends what I was doing, those who were on the same course as me didn’t bat an eyelid, but others found the mapping of movements a little creepy. And it kind of is, but at the same time it was really, REALLY revealing. It’s amazing to see how much objects control use of space to a few pathways. Although this is a generalisation, people either moved around the exhibition in a clockwise fashion, looking at the boards and ignoring the shirts, or zigzagged between the shirts and ignored the boards. It seemed weird not to look at both; how can understand what you see without reading the information, and how can you understand the information without seeing what you’re reading about? But nevermind!

Anyway, I also went to see a Native American exhibition in Manchester, and they used similar features to the PRM, with quotes on the walls and a video. However, you couldn’t see the coats from every angle in the Manchester Museum exhibition, and one coat was stretched out like a dead animal hide, not a living being. And they had way more interactive features. And it was bright orange.

I think the PRM did it better (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) because it had the Blackfoot people’s voices everywhere; it was more their exhibit than the curators’. And people really responded to that. How would I feel if I couldn’t access objects of great importance to my culture? Who owns what? What is ownership? Are museums outposts of colonialism and voyeurism?

These questions swam through my mind and I really don’t know the answers quite yet. If you visited the exhibition, I hoped you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t you can read about it on this blog and on the PRM’s website."

Monday, 2 September 2013

Visiting with the Ancestors: Saying Farewell

Heather Richardson and Andrew Hughes, PRM Conservators, gently folding one of the Blackfoot shirts as the exhibition is dismantled.

I am very sad that the Blackfoot Shirts exhibition has ended. Since February I have enjoyed watching visitors in the exhibition and reading their comments: many comments are unusually long for visitor book comments, thoughtful, and reflecting the emotional qualities of the quotes and photographs. It has been gratifying to see the project having an impact on people in Britain and around the world (our visitorship is international). It has also been a steadying influence for me to see the ancestors many times a day. The exhibition space is visible from the main staircase in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and on the main corridor between the stairs and the tearoom and staff entrance, so every day I have walked past the gallery and paused to acknowledge the ancestors and the work they are doing. It has been such a blessing to work on this project, and as I pass the shirts, I say thank you to the ancestors, every single time. They also remind me—with their intense physical and spiritual presence—that they are sacred objects and that there are Blackfoot protocols for behavior around sacred objects.  If I have been angry or frustrated, just a glimpse of the shirts has made me think about that, and let go of it and be calmer and grateful as I move past them. Those of us who work across cultures are changed by the experiences, by what we learn from others. Sometimes I have sat on the bench outside the gallery and just taken in their presence, and on occasion I have asked for their strength and help on a really tough day. I’m going to miss seeing them.

And hearing them. Narcisse Blood’s video, an important part of the exhibition, includes the voices of Blackfoot friends and family and mentors, as well as Alison Brown and myself reflecting on the project. There’s an honor song sung by Troy Twigg; Narcisse’s gentle voice speaking in Blackfoot to the ancestors; Ramona Bighead and Delia Crosschild reflecting on the project; and many giggling high school students. The sound has gently permeated the museum space, the tea room where we have lunch, and provides an almost-but-not-quite-inaudible background to teaching in the lecture theatre: it’s like all these people are with us all the time. I know they are as well even without the exhibition. I’ll just have to work harder at reminding myself.

On Monday, just before my colleagues begin to dismantle the exhibition, I will thank the ancestors for their work and tell them what is happening next. I will have to do this in English, but hope they understand what is in my heart, what my meaning is. I will say thank you for teaching English people about Blackfoot people and about why you are still important to your great-great-grandchildren. Thank you for reaching out to visiting First Nations and Native American people who identified themselves in the guest book. Thank you for touching the hearts and minds of so many people from so many different cultures. Thank you for your generosity and your strength. Thank you for teaching us here at the Pitt Rivers Museum, so many things. Thank you for making our relationships stronger with each other and with everyone involved in the project.

There have been, as Delia Cross Child said, so many ripples from this project. One of them is that I no longer worry that my museum colleagues will think I am bonkers when I speak out loud to the shirts. The colleagues in the room with me on Monday will include Heather Richardson, who came to Alberta to help with the handling sessions and who developed strong relationships with Blackfoot people as well—she speaks to the ancestors when she works with them too. Technical services colleagues, who were painted by Alvine Mountain Horse in the exhibition space, will be part of the team. Other colleagues have listened to Blackfoot mentors during visits to the Pitt Rivers over the years. I’m not the only one who will be sad to see this exhibition come down.

And what will I say to the ancestors about what is happening next? I will say that we are removing them from display to give them a physical rest. I will say that the book about the project is at press and that they will continue to teach through the book and the website. And I will remind them that their people have asked them to come home for a longer visit, and that this has been agreed—we just have to figure out the logistics and funding. I will remind them that their work has triggered another project, run by Alison Brown, which will see a Blackfoot delegation come to the UK this autumn to view collections at other museums. This is farewell, for a time, but certainly not the end.

I’ll miss them terribly, though.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A tough audience

(image from Helen Mears' blog post for the Museum Ethnographers' Group, on the Future of the Ethnographic Museum conference at Oxford; see

This is one of the more challenging professional moments I have faced in a long time: me, and about 50 other museum professionals, crammed into the Visiting with the Ancestors (Blackfoot Shirts Project) exhibition at the Pitt Rivers at the start of the Future of the Ethnographic Museum conference recently. 

My audience included just about everybody who might write and publish about the PRM in the next decade: colleagues from all across Europe and the UK, delegates from around the world (Israel, Brazil, New Zealand, North America...) and luminaries James Clifford and Ruth Phillips. I had designed the exhibition knowing that it would be up during the conference and that this moment would come, but I have to say it was a great relief to finally face it and receive positive feedback.

There are many special things about the exhibition. One is that its themes and content came from Blackfoot mentors. We were actually planning a book about the project when we met with them in 2011 to ask what they wanted it to say and what tone and format they would prefer; I simply pulled the outline for the book into 3-D for the exhibition.

The exhibit tells the story of the project, of why we took the shirts back to Alberta, of the processes involved in building relationships with Blackfoot people, of what happened when the shirts returned and people were able to learn from them, of how the project changed the museum profession in the UK, and of how Blackfoot people feel now that the shirts are back in Oxford. There are three of the shirts in the centre of the room, and around the walls we have quotes from participants, photographs of every stage of the process (including one of the crate holding the shirts, painted bright pink for visibility, on the tarmac at Heathrow), and a wonderful video about the project's impact in Blackfoot communities by Narcisse Blood.

It was gratifying to see my colleagues respond to an exhibition about a project process. It was especially gratifying because another special thing about this exhibition is that PRM staff did it in-house. We didn't have the budget to hire an external designer, so we designed it ourselves, took courses on graphic design, found suppliers to print the text, and physically installed it ourselves (thanks Alan and Chris!). 

It's been an amazing thing to see the ancestors teaching yet another audience, and inspiring museum staff here at PRM--and around the world--to learn and develop.