Monday, 4 March 2013
Over the past few years, a group of Blackfoot shirts at the Pitt Rivers Museum has been the focus of a remarkable project to enable Blackfoot people to reconnect with and learn from these important heritage objects. The first thing that we learned was that the shirts are not simply 'objects': they are collections of animate spirits. Three of the shirts have hairlocks of human and horse hair, which denote them as sacred. The shirts were collected in 1841 by Edward Hopkins, the secretary to the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. When he retired in 1870, he moved to England and took the shirts with him. His family transferred them to the Museum in 1893 after his death.
We wanted to make it possible for Blackfoot people to literally reconnect with these ancestors, to actually touch them gently and learn from them directly. We worked with Alison Brown at the University of Aberdeen, who has a long history of working with Blackfoot people, and the Head of Conservation at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Heather Richardson, who did an internship at the National Museum of the American Indian, working on---their Plains shirts exhibition! Heather agreed to come to Alberta with us, Alison organized small group workshops, the Glenbow and the Galt Museums agreed to host us, and we took the ancestors home for a visit.
Wonderful things happened as a result. Ceremonial leaders, elders, artists, teachers, and college and high school students learned and shared so much knowledge with each other. People sang honor songs to the ancestors, brought them gifts, touched them gently, were moved to tears by their beauty and power. Students learned to do hide tanning and a bit of porcupine quillwork in preparation for meeting their ancestors, and one community revived a ceremony that had been dormant for many decades.
We also wanted to make it possible for museum visitors in the UK to learn from the shirts, and about the importance of the shirts to Blackfoot people today. We wanted to communicate about this kind of work, which is becoming such a part of what museums do. This week, we are opening an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum called 'Visiting with the Ancestors,' which features three of the shirts, and images and words from Blackfoot participants in the project. The exhibit tells the story of the project, of what happened when the shirts went home for a visit, of how Blackfoot people feel about the project.
To celebrate the exhibition opening, we are delighted to have Blackfoot guests, an extended family of people who have brought their infant grandson to visit with the ancestors. And to visit with us. It means a lot when relatives visit from overseas.