Blackfoot shirt © Pitt Rivers Museum

Pitt Rivers Museum

Working with the Blackfoot people to understand more about collections
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford works with source communities to widen access to its collections and to learn more about the objects in its care.

Over the past few years, a collection of Blackfoot shirts has been the focus of a project to enable Blackfoot people to reconnect with and learn from these heritage objects.

As part of this work, staff took the shirts, which were collected in 1841, to Canada so that Blackfoot people could handle them, learn from them, strengthen knowledge about them and revive traditional rituals.

Laura Peers, curator for the Americas collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, wrote on her blog Brave New World Curator: “Ceremonial leaders, elders, artists, teachers, and college and high school students learned and shared so much knowledge with each other.

“People sang honour songs to the ancestors, brought them gifts, touched them gently, were moved to tears by their beauty and power. Students learned to do hide tanning and a bit of porcupine quillwork in preparation for meeting their ancestors, and one community revived a ceremony that had been dormant for many decades.”

The handling sessions with the shirts enabled the sharing of knowledge, strengthened personal identity and wellbeing, and increased social cohesiveness.

A Blackfoot participant said: “It was like a life-changing event [that] made me want to further my education, and to research First Nations archives.”

The project has also had an impact on museum professionals, with Blackfoot knowledge and perspectives shared with the sector and new conservation and handling techniques developed and disseminated.

Blackfoot cultural knowledge was shared with public audiences through three exhibitions in Alberta, Canada, and the UK including Visiting the Ancestors (7 March – 13 September 2013) at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which features three of the shirts as well as images and words from the Blackfoot participants in the project.

Focused school projects around the exhibitions saw children given access to the conservation labs.

The exhibitions also generated an unusual amount of positive visitor feedback, which demonstrated the impact these shirts and the stories can have on. One visitor to the Pitt Rivers Museum said: “I found this exhibition very emotive – I was close to tears.”

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