'The Haida Project' - a Brown Bag Review

Brown Bag 2nd March 2011

“The Haida Project: Ethnographic Collections Linking UK Museums and Indigeneous Communities”

Dr Laura Peers, Pitt Rivers Museum

The themes of Laura Peers' presentation chime well with those of the last Brown Bag, as both are experimental projects with a desire to create links between museums, objects, staff and source communities, and to re-ignite the power of heritage. They do so, however, in very different ways, and Laura’ss presentation allows us to move from the digital world into one more visceral and sensory.

The Haida have been an iconic presence in the Pitt Rivers throughout its history, the Haida Totem Pole in particular a prominent presence in the Museum. There are over three hundred items in its display, but the typological arrangement of the displays hides them. When she arrived at the museum in 1998, Dr Peers noted the lack of life, in this collection in particular, and wondered what she could do. Her core project became one of creating connections, and reanimating the objects, filling them with vivacity. Part of making the objects more accessible, prominent and individuated was their uploading to Flickr. But the importance of a project such as this is not just as a way of enlivening collections, but of reconnecting people with their heritage, through items which have not been seen in their originary communities for at least fifty, if not one hundred years. In the case of the Haida, who have suffered significant persecution in the past, with their objects 'hoovered' from their homelands, their culture suppressed, and the endangering of their language, access to such ancient, important material is vital. And for the museum industry, the encouragement of professionals from different cultural backgrounds can strongly enrich their knowledge and understanding of the collections which they hold in trust. Laura also desired to examine what “relationship,” such a buzz word since the rise of the New Museology, really means, not just in terms of the relationships of museums and communities, but between museums and objects, and objects and communities.

How was the collection to be given life? How were the nuances of “relationships” to be explored? In 2009, supported by the Leverhulme Fund and, in some cases, by the delegates themselves, a group of twenty one Haida researchers arrived at the Pitt Rivers to engage with the collection in a way which would turn out to be highly physical and emotional. It is this visit upon which Laura’s presentation focused, though the delegation were also to visit the British Museum's collection, and the hope was that an international network would be created with the Haida Gwaii Museum, allowing more permanent connections with source communities and museums to be established.

A laudable aim, for certain, but the process was not always an easy one. Simply in terms of museum logistics, the size of the project was problematic. Eighty per cent of the Haida collection at the Pitt Rivers were in the cases, and therefore it was necessary that they were removed: problematic in terms of movement, and of the display itself. And of course, fear arose on the part of museum staff, concerned about the 'uncontrolled handling' of fragile objects, and the ways in which the Haida might have engaged with them. For the Haida, the issues were emotional and moral, for at times the objects which they were shown had highly powerful, troubling resonances. The chiefly headgear, for example, elicited tearful outbursts, and the weeping was not only for the associated, and departed individual, but for the object's imprisonment, for their supressed cultureand their subjugation and mistreatment in the past.

But, it seems, the handling sessions themselves provided overwhelmingly positive experiences, and a video showed us how highly dynamic, engaging and sensory the whole process became. For the Haida, when presented with the objects, wept, cradled them, touched them, wore them, and sang. At times, too, the museum staff even joined in. even those objects which were deemed worrisome for the Pitt Rivers, due to their fragility, were treated with a tender kindness, and the approach which the Pitt Rivers took in informing the delegates of the fragility of the pieces, rather than preventing them from touching or handling them. In a way, the sessions allowed the people to reclaim a heritage they had lost, or that they were physically coming to know for the first time. They were able to perform identities, both their own and those of the objects, and in this way the personalities of both human and material culture were shored up and reformed. All in all, there were only six small breakages, four of which were rebreakages, not bad given the size of the group. In fact, Laura suspects that it was this uncontrolled handling which was the most valuable for establishing and re-establishing relationships. For in the end, the museum staff stood back, accepted that the Haida engaged with their objects in a different way, not a way which was less caring or careful, but which forged an emotional bond with material in a very different way. In a sense, whilst the Haida engagement is more obviously sensual, the museum's relationship of distance and objectivity with the objects becomes the strange one, though I hasten to add it is no less valid for all that strangeness.

In the end, however, such boundaries were broken, and the dichotomy between museum staff and Haida melted away, to create co-researchers, co-experiencers, clearly apparent from the photographs and videos which Laura shows. Relationships have been maintained with the researchers and the Haida Gwaii institution, and plans are afoot to provide museological training to the Haida community and to staff at the Haida Gwaii Museum. Attitudes on both sides have developed and changed, things have been learned. The museum staff have seen a new way of viewing objects, the Haida, whilst sad to leave their objects behind, know that the objects are cared for, and have a desire to engage with their use in a productive and powerful fashion. The post presentation discussion intimated that this could have serious implications not just for the ways in which we can allow objects to be understood and engaged with in terms of research and display, but also in terms of the repatriation debate. Sensory, open, emotional engagement and the need for the political and physical repatriation of objects seem to be intimately connected, for as Laura notes, the more open access you give communities to museum collections, the fewer repatriation requests you receive.

All of this, then, begs the question of what a museum does, and indeed what a museum is. Is the museum an institution which holds things bound within its walls? In the age of the hyperlink, I, and many other do not think it can afford to remain purely this way. Whilst the physical building remains an important keystone, the museum in the world of the web becomes a network, an action, a thing done rather than a place in which it is done. The museum, through projects such as this, can be questioned institutionally, brought out of itself into a realm of expansive power. It seems ironic, almost, that such a question arises from a project conducted in perhaps the most 'museum-y' museum of them all.

Thank you, Dr. Peers, for a powerful and illuminating presentation. I hope that your relationships, networks, interactions and flows are maintained, and that your projects can continue apace. I've certainly been encouraged to look at objects, and curatorial handlings of them, in a new light. I'm looking forward to seeing the Haida Project's website at the PRM! So many thanks, and we look forward to learning how the results progress.


Stephanie said…
Thanks Jenny, this sounded like a really interesting presentation!
Jenny said…
It was great. It was really interesting to learn about and think about different levels of material engagement, and the emotional resonances which these engagement levels come from or create.
J said…
"the more open access you give communities to museum collections, the fewer repatriation requests you receive."
And this is what I find this so problematic about the current practice of museums as regards Aboriginal artefacts (not just the PRM) because it still assumes that the museum is right and the community of origin has to ask for access. There is an incredible chauvinism in thinking that a handling session and a group hug will make the original looting and the continued colonial hoarding of aboriginal objects OK. It will not. It is not a long-term solution and to shy away from it by being proud over paltry steps towards righting a wrong is dishonest.
What is missing from Dr Peers' account, and what I am partially reacting to, is the vast background of the ways in which museums in North America have dealt with the difficult issues of displaying and providing access to Native items; they have basically put up a carrot on a stick, saying that Western museum practices take precedence over the living cultures and practices of these peoples, and that in order to have access to them, they have to come to the museum, or build their own approved museums; either way, the things are still locked in a case and not used in the vital ways in which they were intended to.
Repatriation is often lumped together with war and archeological looting, but in fact it is a much more complicated and nuanced issue. It is, in my opinion, a matter of absolute necessity if the people involved are still living. I think there is a direct comparison to be made between the repatriation of Nazi-looted art in Europe to descendants of Shoah victims, and this.
J said…
Sorry, I vomited a lot of anger all over that comment; Jenny's review was much more about emotional resonance, which is certainly and interesting and valid way of positively evaluating this particular project. My comment has more to do with a wider intellectual and ethical debate about cultural property that is no closer to being resolved than it ever was.
Jenny said…
It's a difficult question. I'm not sure it's one that can ever be fully answered. But that seems like a cop out, somehow.

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