First-Nation Artefacts at the British Museum

seminars led by Dr. David Stirrup (Kent) and Dr. Robbie Richardson (Kent)

workshop run by Dr. Jago Cooper and Ms. Cynthia McGowan (British Museum)

by Jenny Reddish, Sainsbury Research Unit, UEA

To the British Museum Ethnographic Store (on a somewhat shabby street in Haggerston, east London) for a day thinking about the histories of First-Nation American artefacts and the social relations involved in their collection. We arrived to find a smorgasbord of objects spread out on the tables, from Inuit model snowshoes to Mayan pottery and Iroquoian wampum garters and belts.

Dr Jago Cooper, Curator of the Americas at the BM, started the day with an introduction to the Americas collections within the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. There are around 100,000 objects from the Americas in the museum, some of which were part of the founding collection in 1753. This is a living collection, and its relations with indigenous ‘source communities’ go back over a century. Yet in terms of floor space on the main site, acquisitions budget, and staff (Dr Cooper is the only curator), it is a poor cousin to other departments like Ancient Egypt and Sudan. We talked about why this might be, and how the situation is changing – partly thanks to Jago’s advocacy work.

Dr Robbie Richardson (University of Kent) then took the floor with a seminar on ‘Early Collecting and the Iconography of “Indians” in Britain’. Nineteenth-century European collecting practices in the New World often sought out objects representing the ‘authentic Indian’, unsullied by contact with white men. But as Robbie showed, even the earliest artefacts to arrive in the metropolitan centres of Europe were ‘already transcultural’. Holding up a rounded, flattened piece of bone covered in writing, he described the story of one of the strangest objects I have ever seen. A spoon carved from the breastbone of a Great Auk (extinct since the mid-nineteenth century), it was collected in 1702 from a Northeastern Woodlands man called Papenau. The collector, one ‘Winthrop Esq.’, had reportedly cured Papenau’s wife of gangrene in her legs by bathing them in ox bladders full of balsam water. When it made its way into the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the BM, Sloane inscribed this remarkable tale onto the object in ink.

Rather than becoming a symbol for an entire culture and stripped of its particularity, as happened with many First-Nation objects collected in the nineteenth century, the auk-bone spoon (pictured, left) (BM Accession no. Am,SLMisc.1730) testifies to the entangled relationships between makers, collectors and others. Likewise, those most ‘Indian’ of objects, the tomahawk and scalping knife, turn out to have been produced in the industrial centres of Britain (Birmingham, Sheffield) and shipped over the Atlantic for use in trade and treaty negotiations. They came to define European notions of Indian cruelty and savagery, so much so that many were collected and donated to Western museums as examples of ‘native’ artefacts!

After a restorative bowl of beef pho at a local Vietnamese, we headed back to Orsman Road to hear Dr David Stirrup (University of Kent) speak on ‘alternative literacies’ in relation to the array of objects spread out on the table. David raised the possibility that indigenous American societies have too readily been categorized as oral cultures. Many settlers in the New World believed that the local people would view their alphabetic writing systems as magical. Slightly less ridiculously, many anthropologists, historians and linguists in the twentieth century have posited ‘literacy’ and ‘orality’ as fundamentally different modes of thinking. As Lévi-Strauss said in Tristes Tropiques, ‘That the Nambikwara could not write goes without saying’.

So why was writing so readily adopted among many First-Nations groups? For instance, roughly twenty years after the Methodist minister James Evans developed a syllabary for the Cree language, the majority of Cree adults were fluent and probably had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Dr Stirrup suggested that the artefacts laid out in front of us – such as a Sioux ‘winter count’ drawn on calico, a pictographic record of events over the past year (Am1942,07.2) – could be considered ‘books’ in one sense. It is possible to view ‘writing’ as a spectrum, and ‘bookishness’ as a characteristic of certain cultures, rather than holding onto a binary opposition between objects that are books and objects that are not. David’s seminar sparked a lively debate about what it might mean to extend the concept of ‘writing’ to encompass indigenous American systems of representation.

I left the Ethnographic Store thrilled to have spent a day in the company of these objects, my fellow students and the speakers. I’m grateful to Dr Cooper, Dr Richardson and Dr Stirrup for sharing their knowledge and ideas with us. Thanks should also go to Cynthia McGowan, the BM Museum Assistant who kindly brought out objects from the stores and handled them for us, and to Dr Paddy Bullard for organizing everything beautifully.