The Silver Wave: supporting teachers to talk about colonial violence - Museums Association

The Silver Wave: supporting teachers to talk about colonial violence

A case study from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery
Sophie Harbour
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A still from The Silver Wave (2020) a film by Michelle Williams Gamaker

Tiny wooden figurines from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (Ramm) collections inspired a film that tells the story of a woman who survived for two years stranded on an uninhabited island north of Siberia.

As well as showcasing collections and collectors that trace the history of Exeter and Devon from the prehistoric to the present, Ramm’s world cultures and natural sciences collections tell a story of global exploration and collecting in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 2019, the museum commissioned moving image and performance artist Michelle Williams Gamaker to make a new art work to celebrate the theme of “untold stories”.

Her 12-minute film was inspired by objects from the Our World Cultures collection and by the incredible story of Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman and the only surviving member of an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic in 1921.

Ada was employed as a seamstress and cook for four explorers, who hoped to claim the island for the British Empire. But all four men fell ill and eventually died or disappeared while attempting to seek help, leaving Ada to survive alone on the island for three months. The words you hear in the film are unedited extracts from Ada’s diary, expressing her concern for her young son Bennett, who she reluctantly left behind in a care home. Ada’s words are narrated by Iñupiat poet and writer Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen, from the Ugiuvamiut tribe of King Island.

Ada was taught English by the Christian missionaries who raised her. Like many Indigenous people at that time, she was relocated and suffered the suppression of her native language along with an inadequate education.

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Ada may not have had a strong command of any language. Carrie Ayagaduk Ojanen asks that “the listener hears the context of the broken language in the broken world”.

Ada’s was a world of cultural upheaval and colonial violence that Indigenous peoples were forced into. In the film, Michelle Williams Gamaker projects archival images and lighting effects over the objects to evoke the Arctic. The Silver Wave film also includes Mexican rain gods, Thai dancer figurines and Indian tourist souvenirs, objects that are currently kept in the museum’s stores.

The Silver Wave was displayed in the World Cultures galleries from October 2020 to July 2021. It can also viewed online via Ramm’s YouTube channel and below:

The Silver Wave – a film by Michell Williams Gamaker

In order to share Michelle’s film more widely, we decided to develop a Key Stage 2 education pack for teachers. We are keen to support learning and skills development for people of all ages and currently have a range of activities aimed specifically at those wanting to develop employment skills and/or get involved in work-based learning opportunities.

Developing an education pack to support teachers seemed like a great research and development opportunity for an undergraduate to collaborate with us on, so we advertised the position as a student placement to Plymouth University students.

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We had a lot of applications to take up the placement but our successful candidate was Christine Johns, a fine art and art history. She had previously worked as a classroom assistant in primary schools and applied to take part in the student placement in order to develop her writing skills further and to make use of her previous and extensive experience working with children in both formal and community education. 

Michelle and Christine met via Zoom, enabling them to discuss how and why the artwork was created and what might be important to include in the education pack.

The resulting Key Stage 2 education pack provides background information to the film and an insight into contemporary art practice. It gives ideas for classroom activities linked to the film and to the English National Curriculum.

The pack was designed by Christine in collaboration with Michelle Williams Gamaker, Lara Goodband, Ramm’s contemporary art curator, and myself as Ramm’s skills development officer).

Michelle Williams Gamaker said: “This education pack offers so much to unpack some of the ideas that went into making The Silver Wave, which is a film of many layers. I am particularly excited that students might ‘time-travel’ with Ada to think about her epic experiences and her achievement of survival against all odds in the Arctic.”

Sophie Harbour is skills development officer at Ramm. More information about The Silver Wave and Ada Blackjack can be found on the museum’s website

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