Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Student power: eyes for those who cannot visit

This past term, graduate students in the University of Oxford seminar ‘Powerful Things’ (offered in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography) acted as the eyes for two different Indigenous communities, recording visual information and taking notes on two different items of material heritage. In the first session, the students examined and photographed and sketched a Plateau dress [1893.67.7] from HBC officer Edward Hopkins’ collection, thought to have been acquired in 1841. Two weeks later, the students did the same with a Chilkat apron [1884.56.82] that was in General Pitt Rivers’ collection by 1877.

The idea for these sessions came from members of the Kalispel community in western USA, who had found information about the dress online and asked for images of the address. As with many items in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection, the museum had not yet photographed this important item. Normally I might have gone down to the textile store and taken some photographs myself. As I knew I would be teaching the seminar, however, I had the idea to ask all 12 students to observe, photograph and record everything we could about the dress. Then I thought it would be interesting to give the students the chance to observe and photograph a second object made of very different materials. For each item, Indigenous community members contributed questions about the object for the students to answer. This contact between the communities and the students was really helpful for the students in their learning.


Students in the 'Powerful Things' seminar in action


Both sessions were very successful. The students got to learn from important historical teachers, and they also learned what a privilege it is to have access to such collections. At the beginning of each session, I acknowledged and thanked our teacher and told the students that it was our responsibility to provide as much useful information to the communities of origin as possible because it was quite likely that most members of those communities would never have the chance to see this object in person. That is a regrettable truth about Indigenous collections in museums in Britain.

The students took this responsibility very seriously. In each session they produced over 100 photographs and sketches, and tried to answer all the community questions for each item. We have now uploaded images to a dropbox for each community and will be putting them online as well.

This process has taught me that it is possible for students to work as volunteers for Indigenous communities and to provide some visual access to material heritage held in overseas collections. I look forward to talking with members of these two communities about how to make such images and information most useful to them.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

#museumsfordiversity

Cuneiform tablet, Iraq. Bronze Age Babylonia. 1966.32.76. Literacy originated in what is now Iraq and surrounding countries. #museumsfordiversity

PRM 1966.32.76

Monday, 30 January 2017

Refugees Welcome Here!

As a museum of human history and cross-cultural diversity, a place celebrating human creativity and a space of reflection about the failures of cross-cultural relationships, the Pitt Rivers Museum has chosen in its recent Strategic Plan to work actively with refugee communities, with LGBTQ groups, and with other vulnerable communities.

An active program of relationship-building and activities with refugee groups is well underway, and we are exploring how to make the Museum a safe space for refugees, a place where their rich cultures and stories will be valued. Last week, we convened the first Faculty Champions workshop with Oxford faculty in Refugee Studies and the Centre on Migration and Policy Studies, to facilitate teaching on their core topics using PRM collections. 

Some time ago, I recall the former head of the museum service in northern Ireland say that during the Troubles, museums were about the only space where differences could be discussed in a respectful way, the only space where difference was tolerated in public. 

Museums have an important role to play internationally in encouraging diversity, in supporting refugee and immigrant populations, and in educating public audiences and creating tolerance in civic society. We need to step up our actions, to signal publicly, to use the power of visual representation, to take on this leadership role right now. 

@Diversity is our Strength


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Powerful Things: a graduate seminar in museum anthropology

I’m really excited to teach my graduate seminar this term. We are focusing on 3 spectacular items of Indigenous heritage, with discussion sessions around those, and working with two different communities to answer their questions about the items we are examining. This should be fun: I am asking all 12 students to turn their keen eyes, minds, sharp pencils and cameras toward these items. This is the first time I have linked student engagements with material culture and community questions, but it seemed a really good way to answer some research questions that came in from one community about one of the items we’ll be looking at. 

[And it's 12 students because that's all I can fit in the research room!]

We are starting with Powhatan’s Mantle at the Ashmolean, which we will examine in its case, but it is an ancient and powerful object to help us develop a material and visual research strategy for the items we are looking at out of case, and to begin to think with objects. This item came from Pocahantas’ father Powhatan c.1630s, during the early diplomatic negotiations between English settlers and Indigenous peoples on the east coast.

Then we’ll go on to look at two items in the research room (ie not behind glass):

A hide Plateau dress, collected by Sir George Simpson and his secretary Edward Hopkins of the HBC in 1841 [PRM 1893.67.7]. Kalispel tribal member Annette Pierre has been liaising with community members to compile their questions for our study of this dress.

And

A woven Chilkat apron, probably Tsimshian, possibly Tlingit [PRM 1884.56.82]. We know nothing about the provenance of this apron, but it was in Pitt Rivers’ personal collection by 1877.  A version of this apron was made by Dolores Churchill while she was studying with Cheryl Samuel, and Dolores Churchill, and Dolores and her daughter Evelyn Vanderhoop are kindly contributing questions and thoughts to our study.

PRM 1884.86.52

Both study sessions will result in extensive documentary records, photographs and sketches, and ‘mapped’ photo-shopped detailed images of the items (visual condition reports) which will be made available publically, online as well as through Indigenous community networks.

In between, we’ll be discussing the changing meanings and roles of material and visual culture across time and cultures, focusing on the social and political roles of heritage items today as Indigenous societies strengthen distinct identities in postcolonial contexts through re-engagements with material and visual heritage. We’ll be thinking about issues of hybridity, cultural change and persistence, heritage, postmemory and sensory engagements with heritage items in the legacy of trauma, and Indigenous survivance.


Very glad as always to have the excellent Giovanna Vitelli along for the course! It will be really challenging, fun, and productive.