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Dr Laura Peers of Oxford University's Pitt Rivers Museum works with Haida First Nation artists and the Haida Museum to build a model of knowledge exchange which can be used by UK museums and geographically remote source communities whose material heritage is held in the UK.

Image credit: Robert Rapoport

Among the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum are some 300 objects from the Haida Nation, which is located north of Vancouver Island, Canada.  The objects embody complex social structures, relationships with supernatural beings, and artistic rules, but for over a century, there was very little idea what these things meant, and even less understanding of what they might mean to Haida people of today. Through this ESRC IAA-funded knowledge exchange project, Professor Laura Peers of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and Curator for the Americas Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, hopes to change that.

In September 2014, Professor Peers brought two highly skilled Haida First Nations artists, Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, to the Pitt Rivers to make a replica of the so-called Great Box, a 19th century Haida bent-wood box, which has been in the Pitt River museum since it opened in 1884. This part of the project was crucial as Haida artists had not had local access to such inspirations for generations: all such artistic masterpieces were collected and removed to museums. 

By bringing the carvers into contact with this important material heritage object, they could reclaim even higher levels of Haida artistry through the replication process. Having the historic box in the room with them was, as they said, a masterclass for them every day, allowing them to make new and exciting artistic discoveries.  During the Oxford phase while the replica was being made, local audiences had the opportunity to watch Gwaai and Jaalen work and discuss the project and Haida culture with them.

In October 2014, the replica box was sent back to the Haida community and used in workshops by the project artists there with youth, professional artists, and elders to disseminate artistic and cultural knowledge.  ‘Marnie,’ a Haida woman who assists in the high school, said: ‘[I] watched Gwaai and Jaalen present the replica box at Masset High School to about 40 students, and I could see how some of the students that I’ve seen since they were in kindergarten, how enraptured they were by the presentation, it was beautiful to watch….Having [the box] on hand, I can only see it as encouraging some of the students that are a bit hesitant. We can see it in 2D, we can see it in books, but to actually come up and see it and feel it and examine it—like, if they were just to go and visit the box, wherever it may be—it can only benefit our community and our peoples. Having direct access to this will hopefully continue to inspire and challenge.’ 

A second perhaps unanticipated but important benefit of the project was the strengthening of knowledge about Haida culture for volunteers and staff of the Pitt Rivers, who deliver educational programs on Haida culture to thousands of schoolchildren annually.

Professor Peers is also working to develop an international museum alliance to support loans of Haida objects to the Haida Gawaii Museum to make these important heritage objects available to local artists and other members of the Haida community to strengthen the Haida culture and identity. She hopes that this project will become a model of knowledge exchange which can be used by UK museums and geographically remote source communities whose material heritage is held in the UK. 

This project was funded by Oxford's ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

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