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.

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