Bryony Onciul came up from Exeter on Friday to give the Pitt Rivers Museum/Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology weekly research seminar, and spoke about her work on four very different sites of cultural representation with and by Blackfoot peoples in Alberta, Canada: Head-Smashed-In, Glenbow Museum, the Buffalo Nations (Luxton) Museum, and Blackfoot Crossing. While these are very different kinds of museums/cultural centres, all feature Blackfoot heritage and engagement with Blackfoot people ranging from collaboration to hiring Blackfoot staff to being developed within a Blackfoot community. Onciul’s book Museums, Heritage and Indigenous Voice: Decolonising Engagement has recently been published by Routledge.
Onciul has done a remarkable number of interviews with key players in Alberta case studies, especially Blackfoot elders and ceremonial leaders involved in these institutions. Her analysis is especially strong in two key areas. One of these examines how postcolonial museum practice is embedded into institutions in the longer term beyond the specific project. This is an issue which many of us who work in the field have noted for some time, but which is seldom if ever written about.
The other is the way that these institutions have approached difficult pasts, and her focus here is on what she terms ‘displayed withholding’: the presentation of one level of text and visual display but a conscious, thought-through refusal to display other levels. This might be because of cultural sensitivities over sacred material, or because community members such as residential school survivors deem the past too painful, too active within the community to want to go into depth in ways that would further traumatise people or continue the pain rather than heal. Often community consultants visually and materially reference such issues in ways that signal to informed insiders that they do know the fuller story but have decided not to tell it. Such displays can be read at a surface level by outsiders, and often constitute sensitive but challenging narratives for non-community members. How exhibition teams determine the ways to mediate between these layers is fascinating, and Onciul has used the rich archive of the Blackfoot Gallery process at Glenbow to explore these issues.