Thursday, 18 January 2018

What is the Specific Moment that makes thinking about the Colonial possible?

With funding from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Kenneth Kirkwood Memorial Fund I was able to travel to the Research Centre for Material Culture at the NationalMuseum of World Cultures, Leiden, to attend the conference ‘Reckoning with History: Colonial Pasts, Museum Futures and DoingJustice in the Present’. The conference brought together academics, curators, artists and Museum professionals from all over the world. It was led by the charismatic Professor Wayne Modest. Early in the proceedings Prof. Modest asked “what is this specific moment? What is the conjuncture? What is at stake now that makes it possible to speak about these changes? What is the specific moment that makes thinking about the colonial possible?” He indicated that this was a new era for Museums and a changing mood has begun to encompass Museum thinking. In recent years what was formally a taboo subject, colonialism, has become a buzz word and everyone is keen to jump on the band wagon. But why is this and what does it mean to confront our chequered colonial pasts? Indeed a question that we hope to tackle at the next Museum Ethnographers Group Conference hosted at the Pitt Rivers Museum in April later this year. 2017 was an interesting year on mainland Europe where a number of Museums engaged in redisplay, redevelopment and exhibition programmes exposing and laying bare colonial genealogies. The conference offered the possibility to critique this approach and analyse public reaction to such explicit reckonings with the colonial past. I feel that this approach to Museum practice both internally and more publicly has been absent in Museums in the UK. One reason for attending this conference was to be able to think more about how we confront the colonial past through the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

However as The Guardian observed in an editorial commending Germany’s effort to face up to its colonial legacy through the exhibition ‘German Colonialism: Fragments Past and Present’ symbolically held at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, Britain would struggle to do the same. As the editorial goes on to point out as much as we ignore it, the colonial past is still present today, as a nation we have a habit of making rosy our troubled past and choosing to remember all that supposedly made Britain ‘Great’ We are also very fragmented as Brexit made clear and lack any shared view of our historical past and for that matter our political future. This would make any effort to confront and narrate the complex and difficult truths regarding our colonial legacies difficult to do. Yes, these reasons alone are not adequate excuses to continue as we are. In fact, arguably Ethnographic Museums are best placed to address these ‘wrongs’ through reconciliation, justice and truth. As Modest suggested “The ethnographic museum as a congregation, as a bringing together, under circumstances of violence, might allow us to give credence to the multiplicity of different ways of being in the world. The ethnographic collections might be the place where we really give into the idea that we are multiple, that we are not the only ones who know, who have laws.” Though efforts to do so have proved hard, as an example given closer to home reflected. Sumaya Kassim, boldly claimed ‘The Museum will not be decolonised’ when describing the challenges faced in trying to bring context to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. During the project Kassim faced many challenges particularly from Museum staff and structures as she writes Decolonising is deeper than just being represented. When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money, and time, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity”. 

Whether or not the Museum can be decolonised I believe remains to be seen but any effort to do so should focus on practice and structures and should be carried out with commitment, a willingness to change and an investment to do so. Rajkamal Kahlon’s exhibition ‘Staying with Trouble’ as part of her residency at the Museum of Ethnology,Vienna, reimagines ethnographic portrait photography redrawing and repainting the bodies of native subjects inviting visitors to question their own gaze. Kahlon spoke of her reservations about working with an ethnographic collection and her fear of her work being employed as an instrument to lessen colonial guilt. Having just undergone a major redisplay Kahlon was left feeling uncomfortable with the inclusion in the new displays of a trophy head from the Munduruku people from Brazil. Whilst for most (white) European Museum visitors this would not cause distress she stressed the trauma associated with such displays for people of colour and asked “What is the work of recovery? What is the work of recuperation? What does it mean to live with extermination? During an earlier panel, we were reminded of issues of law, ethics and responsibility. Catherine Lu, associate professor of political science stated “The project of reconciliation should not be understood as the same as the project of justice” and whilst repatriation is one act of decolonising the Museum this act alone does not exclusively make amends for past wrong doings. Repatriation is a process of reconciliation but arguably the relationships built whilst negotiating these acts of decolonisation are just as valuable as the act itself.

There were moments during the two days when I thought the future looked quite bleak, it was even suggested that the only reasonable resolution would be to abolish the Museum and I was left fretting about my curatorial responsibility and indeed my chosen career path. As the last session of the conference dawned the conclusion was reached that perhaps the best we can hope for is to ‘live with the trouble’. But to feel troubled and to be troubled is progress and perhaps on the horizon lies hope and the ability to imagine new structures and ways of being for the Ethnographic Museum, one of equally and transparency, honesty and truth. We have important lessons to earn and much work to do but I still believe that there is a place for the Museum in the contemporary world.

Faye Belsey
Assistant Curator


‘Should museums display human remains from other cultures?’ The Art Newspaper, Katherine Hickley 8th January 2018.

‘Rajkamal Kahlon: Staying with Trouble’ Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria. 25th October 2017 – 31st March 2018.

‘German Colonialism. Fragments Past and Present’ German Historical Museum, Berlin, Germany. 14th October 2016 – 14th May 2017

‘The Guardian view on the colonial past: a German lesson for Britain. Editorial’ Monday 26th December 2016

‘The museum will not be decolonised’ Media Diversified, Sumaya Kassim 15th November 2015

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Loan to the exhibition 'The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Canada

Facade of the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus. Designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. The building is set on the cliffs of Point Grey, a location which is the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. © Pitt Rivers Museum
The crate containing the PRM blanket being palletised for transport by Air Canada © Pitt Rivers Museum

On Monday 13th of November I was lucky enough to travel to Canada with a very special blanket destined for an exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. This was an amazing opportunity for me having worked closely with collections held by the Pitt Rivers Museum from the North-West Coast First Nation peoples in my nine-year career at the Museum. A highlight of my time at the PRM to date has been a visit in 2009 of a delegation of Haida from Haida Gwaii (formally the Queen Charlotte Islands) and whist I was unable to make the epic three-day journey to Haida Gwaii I was able to visit the Bill Reid Gallery and met with a friend I made from that trip whilst in Victoria on Vancouver Island.
Installing the blanket in the exhibition gallery. The blanket was unpacked and condition checked before being carefully placed in the specially design showcase © Pitt Rivers Museum
Contemporary Coast Salish weaving on display alongside the historic pieces © Pitt Rivers Museum
Coast Salish blanket 1884.88.9 © Pitt Rivers Museum

The blanket I was couriering is from the Coast Salish people of the North-West Coast of Canada/Northern USA. More specifically from San Juan Islands which sits in the Haro Strait between Vancouver Island and the North-West mainland coast, just south of Vancouver. It is from the Museum’s founding collection donated to the Museum in 1884 by General Augustus Henry Lane FoxPitt-Rivers on the formation of the Museum at the University of Oxford. It is woven from Coast Salish woolly dog hair and goat hair. The use of dog hair dates the blanket as being made before 1884 as the native dog whose hair was used in Salish weaving had died out by 1860. The blanket is one of ten chosen by Salish weavers from the 1800s to be part of the exhibition 'The Fabric of Our Land' with others from Scotland, Finland and the United States. The historical blankets are displayed among contemporary Salish weavings providing a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the rich tradition of weaving for the Salish people. The exhibition is curated by Sue Rowley who kindly had me stay with her whilst I was in Vancouver. Sue worked in collaboration with the local Musqueam people to create the exhibition. Again, I was fortunate enough to meet some contemporary weavers and be present for the exhibition opening which had around 900 attendees and included speeches by Musqueam weavers Wendy John and Debra Sparrow. The blanket will be on display until 15th of April 2018. On returning to bring the blanket back to Oxford there will be community visits arranged at MOA for weavers and Salish people to see the blanket up close. This work is crucial for the continuity of the craft and tradition of Salish weaving and its importance is summed up in this quote from Wendy Grant-John (Musqueam weaver and political leader) ‘Touching blankets that are over a hundred years old creates such a spiritual feeling, an understanding that the skill you’re reacquiring is the same that our ancestors had’

My visit to Canada gave me a glimpse of the importance of traditional craft and ways of life embedded in objects in European Museum’s far from their place of origin. Loans to exhibits such as ‘The Fabric of Our Land’ make it possible for First Nations people to really experience and get close to their ancestors who were involved in the creation of these special objects. The effect this has on future generations of, in this case weavers and Salish people is significant, it is vital that we enable and facilitate such exchanges. There is still much to do in addressing issues of colonial legacies inherent in ethnographic collections but efforts like this make small inroads.

The trip also provided me with the chance to learn from Canadian colleagues about differences and similarities in our curatorial practice and collections management. I was incredibly fortunate to have this experience and endeavoured to learn as much as possible from my trip. I was also lucky enough to spend time in Vancouver and able to visit Vancouver Island. What really impressed on me during my time in British Columbia was the amazing landscape, particularly the relationship between land, sea and nature so rooted in North-West coast iconography, myth and belief. I feel that I returned to Oxford with a greater understanding of North-West coast culture. It is clear that MOA as an institution is leading the sector in Canada and indeed globally for the work they do with indigenous communities particularly artists and young people and whilst the context is different for European collections where the objects are far from their home I feel that the physical distance only gives us greater responsibility to ensure that we make such objects as accessible as possible to whom these objects truly belong. As part of the public programme for the exhibition Salish weavers and artists will be giving gallery tours and talks as well as weaving demonstrations. There is even the chance to have a go at weaving yourself in the gallery should you get the chance to visit.

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator