In 2010, five magnificent Blackfoot shirts, now owned by theUniversity of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, were brought toAlberta to be exhibited at the Glenbow Museum, in Calgary, and the GaltMuseum, in Lethbridge. The shirts had not returned to Blackfootterritory since 1841, when officers of the Hudson’s Bay Companyacquired them. The shirts were later transported to England, where theyhad remained ever since.
Exhibiting the shirts at the museums was, however, only one part ofthe project undertaken by Laura Peers and Alison Brown. Prior to theinstallation of the exhibits, groups of Blackfoot people—hundredsaltogether—participated in special “handlingsessions,” in which they were able to touch the shirts andexamine them up close. The shirts, some painted with mineral pigmentsand adorned with porcupine quillwork, others decorated with locks ofhuman and horse hair, took the breath away of those who saw, smelled,and touched them. Long-dormant memories were awakened, and many of theparticipants described a powerful sense of connection and familiaritywith the shirts, which still house the spirit of the ancestors who worethem.
In the pages of this beautifully illustrated volume is the story ofan effort to build a bridge between museums and source communities, inhopes of establishing stronger, more sustaining relationships betweenthe two and spurring change in prevailing museum policies. Negotiatingthe tension between a museum’s institutional protocol andBlackfoot cultural protocol was challenging, but the experiencedescribed both by the authors and by Blackfoot contributors to thevolume was transformative. Museums seek to preserve objects forposterity. This volume demonstrates that the emotional and spiritualpower of objects does not vanish with the death of those who createdthem. For Blackfoot people today, these shirts are a living presence,one that evokes a sense of continuity and inspires pride in Blackfootcultural heritage.
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