For one week in late March I had the opportunity to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, England to participate in the Blackfoot Shirts Project Conference. Along with ten Blackfoot people from the Siksika (Blackfoot), Piikani (North Peigan), Kainai (Blood) and Amskapi Pikuni (South Piegan or Blackfeet) and Gerry Conaty, Director of Indigenous Studies from the Glenbow Museum, I attended study tours and the two day conference. We shared what we learned through our participation in the Blackfoot Shirts Project with delegates from museums across the United Kingdom.
The Blackfoot Shirts Project involved the loan of five 1830s men's shirts from the Pitt Rivers to the Glenbow and Galt Museum for study and exhibition. During two weeks of workshops at Glenbow and two more at the Galt some 550 Blackfoot people studied the shirts first hand. The shirts were then exhibited to the public in both museums. Dr. Laura Peers, Curator at the Pitt Rivers, Dr. Alison Brown, Community Liaison from the University of Aberdeen, and Heather Richardson, Head Conservator also from the Pitt Rivers will work with people from the four Blackfoot communities to publish all that they learned in a future book.
The intention of the conference was to help the UK curators and conservators understand the importance of connecting indigenous people with historical objects that reside in distant museums. Representatives from the British Museum and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter were in attendance along with many others.
The Elders, ceremonial leaders, educators and artists from the four Blackfoot Tribes eloquently and emotionally described how their people responded to the sacred power and skillful construction and beautiful quill work on the shirts.
Elders talked about the revitalization of their culture through exposure to the shirts. A teacher shared her students' written reactions to the shirts and showed samples of their artwork that clearly described the depth of their responses.
Gerry Conaty and Allan Pard, a Piikani ceremonialist, talked about the protocols museums have with the care of artifacts and the Blackfoot have with regard to the sacred shirts and the compromises the both had to make to made the project successful. I spoke of the Galt's experiences with the workshops, exhibits and programs. Relationship building was an important part of the project as we planned and implemented all that we did with Blackfoot partners.
It became clear over the two days that the British museum professionals gained valuable insight into the significance this project had on Blackfoot people and the three museums involved. Several expressed interest in developing working relationships with the Blackfoot people at the conference and to continue the dialogue initiated by the Blackfoot Shirts Project.
Travelling with our Blackfoot colleagues, attending the conference and visiting the Pitt Rivers Museum was a wonderful experience for me. I also enjoyed walking through historic Oxford and the daffodils, tulip and lilac blooms, tree blossoms, green grass and warm spring days (sorry - but I do have to rub it in a bit!). It can't be far behind now that I'm back on the prairies.