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Blackfoot Shirts Project, 2009-13

Sometimes community members need to touch heritage items in order to reconnect with them, learn from them, and bring knowledge back into practice in the community.


This project involved a loan of five shirts collected in 1841 by the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sir George Simpson, from the Pitt Rivers Museum to the Glenbow and Galt Museums in Alberta, and innovative handling sessions with the shirts by 500 Blackfoot people from all four Blackfoot Nations in Alberta and Montana. I worked with Heather Richardson (then PRM head of conservation) and co-researcher Alison Brown (University of Aberdeen) as well as with Glenbow and Galt Museum staff members to coordinate this logistically complex project.


The handling sessions with Blackfoot people and the shirts were emotionally- and spiritually-charged: social visiting with ancestral spirits, Blackfoot prayer and smudging, and the sensory provocation of the shirts led to the transmission of historical and cultural knowledge amongst participants.


One important outcome of this work was the revival of a ceremony, which had been suppressed by assimilation policies decades before, to transfer rights to such shirts as a way to honour Blackfoot men. We also worked with Blackfoot teachers and students at all levels, and commissioned lesson plans from Blackfoot teachers for the project website.


Other key outcomes included the development of guidelines for community handling sessions with fragile historical cultural material, documentation of the effects of such sessions on cultural items, and a conference which brought Blackfoot knowledge-holders together with UK curators responsible for Blackfoot cultural items.


The project was recognized by the Council for Museum Anthropology with the 2011 Michael Ames Prize for Innovative Anthropology.


Funded by AHRC (£183K), with supplementary funding from Fell Fund, University of Oxford (£2500 for consultation expenses for AHRC grant application process, 2008; £7976. for curriculum development work connected with Blackfoot shirts project, 2010).

  • 2015, with Alison K. Brown, “Our Ancestors Have Come to Visit”: Blackfoot Shirts in Museum Spaces. AUP. *free pdf download 

  • 2013 “Ceremonies of Renewal: Visits, Relationships and Healing in the Museum Space,” Museum Worlds 1(1):136-152. 

  • 2013 (with A.K. Brown) “The Blackfoot Shirts Project: ‘Our Ancestors Have Come to Visit’.” In Annie E. Coombes and Ruth B. Phillips (eds), Museum Transformations. Wiley-Blackwell, 263-287. 

  • Curated public exhibitions “Our Ancestors Have Come to Visit Us” at Glenbow Museum, Calgary, and “Visiting with the Ancestors,” PRM, Oxford, February-September 2013 

Image credit: detail of Blackfoot shirt, Pitt Rivers Museum 1893.67.1, Hopkins Collection. Photograph by Malcom Osman, courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

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