Volunteering in Conservation Part 2

Friday 27th August 2021

To introduce myself, I am Camille, a masters student at the University of Glasgow in Textile Conservation. Alongside my specialisation in textiles, I am keen on gaining experience with other types of materials as well as objects from ‘World Cultures’. As a French-Canadian, I have always been interested in the preservation and promotion of indigenous heritage. Perth Museum & Art Gallery cares for an impressive collection of diverse objects from North American indigenous communities. These treasures motivated me to get in touch with Anna Zwagerman, the Museum’s conservation officer for the new museum project, to do a placement under her supervision this summer.

For the past three weeks, my main duty has been to work with Alex (another student intern from Cardiff University) and Anna in packing objects going for remedial conservation to an external conservation studio. However, I have also explored some of the conservation and interpretation issues around the Museum’s North American collections. This has included updating, where possible, the information held by the Museum on the provenance of the indigenous objects selected for display in the New Museum which is rising from the Old City Hall. Where possible, I have identified the communities from which the objects originally came from and any further geographical information on these communities. I have also been looking for details on the potential purpose of the objects held in the collection and their significance, especially around those that had, or may have had (and still have) a sacred or ceremonial purpose.

Perth’s North American collection comprises objects from at least ten different native communities across Canada and the USA. A significant number of objects came to Perth through the donation of Colin Robertson who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. Robertson collected widely from indigenous communities mainly along the Pacific Northwest coast in the early nineteenth century (see here for the background to such collecting: Material Histories: Scots and Aboriginal peoples in the Canadian Fur-Trade (abdn.ac.uk). Pictured below is a Salish blanket. The Salish are a Northwest American Coast people (present parts of Washington State and British Columbia). They are highly accomplished weavers in a range of materials.

The ethical issues around the cleaning, conservation, and display of the North American collections in Perth are of paramount importance. In the New Museum, the displays will reflect the colonial inheritance of the collections by acknowledging that we have much to learn from First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples about the meanings and values of their objects.

The Museum has already begun developing contacts with the Māori community in New Zealand around the display of Māori objects, ‘taonga’, the Museum holds. The same is planned for the North American collections. What an exciting project!

Looking at what some Canadian museums and heritage associations have been doing to improve their recognition of indigenous rights as declared in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), I have found this great tool online, an interactive map, created by the not-for-profit organisation Native Land Digital, to locate indigenous communities across the world, their languages, and territories. I invite you to explore it as well! https://native-land.ca/

I am grateful to the Perth Museum & Art Gallery for this amazing opportunity, as well as the June Baker Trust, for their generous support.