Information about the Research Network:
Haida Material Culture in UK Museums:
Generating New Forms of knowledge

Haida dance rattle
1884.110.15 Haida dance
rattle carved as a long-billed
bird, possibly a crane, with
ivory beak. Collected by
Dr. Frederick Dally
c. 1862-1870
After nearly two centuries, Haidas are re-encountering some of the oldest surviving materials made by their ancestors—in England.

In September 2009, 21 delegates from the Haida First Nation travelled to the United Kingdom to work with museum collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum and British Museum. Delegates handled some 800 Haida treasures over three weeks at the two museums, and also gave carving and weaving demonstrations, public talks, and public dance performances. The event – including its preparations and effects - has affectionately been dubbed ‘The Haida Project’.

The Haida Project seeks to understand the importance and role of historic collections for source communities and to improve access to collections. Most importantly, in all its endeavours, it seeks to build long-term relationships between source communities and UK museums around the historic Haida collections.

The history between the Haida and the two museums can be traced back to the founding days of each museum: Haida artefacts were highly collectable and sought out by museums. However, once these Haida treasures entered collections they became largely inaccessible to Haida people. Very little contact was being made between British museums and the Haida during the twentieth century and Haidas were largely unaware of the treasures held overseas.

Since the 1980s, short-term projects between each museum and Haida individuals occurred with increasing frequency: commissions for new woven items for the British Museum; collection visits of short-duration and limited access; Haida representation for pole movings in London; community talks on Haida Gwaii by Pitt Rivers curator Laura Peers. At the same time, the Haida Repatriation Committee was travelling with delegations to museums across North America, repatriating their ancestors’ remains, exploring collections in store rooms, and building relationships with museum staff along the way. It was time for the museums and Haida to come together and think long-term together.

The Haida Project imagined museum collections as the focus for improving, formalizing and placing on a permanent basis the relationships between the museums and the Haida. Museum staff knew this would only be possible if there was full hands-on access to the collections for Haida people, so that we could learn together from the objects. Haida delegates would get to see the collections spread out before them on tables, rather than having to open draws and sift through shelves to see their ancestors’ things. They would be able to try on cedar hats, and lift lids off bentwood boxes, rather than look at them behind glass. And they would have weeks to be with the collections, rather than hurried through in a day or two.

Haida delegates:

  • Worked with approximately 800 artefacts
  • Offered information for the improvement of museum catalogue records
  • Danced and sang Haida songs for the public
  • Gave lectures on traditional food gathering, and the relationships between oral history and archaeology
  • Demonstrated weaving, argillite carving, and formline design
  • Designed weekend craft activities for families visiting the museum
  • Advised on conservation needs and traditional care of objects
  • Shared programming and educational strategies with Education Officers
  • Visited the Wellcome collections at the Science Museum in London
  • Met with 16 British curators to learn about other collections in the UK and establish or renew contacts
  • Met, shared food with, and talked with museum visitors and volunteers
  • Visited Stonehenge and toured London and Oxford
  • Discussed processes for repatriation of ancestral remains at the Pitt Rivers Museum and British Museum
  • Were inspired to carve a pole, write new songs, weave, and share their new knowledge with their families
  • Hosted a slide show of photographs from the trip and of the collections for their neighbours
  • Presented their experiences at Conferences
  • Are contributing to a book about the Project

Museum staff:

  • Decanted collections in preparation for the visit
  • Photographed the collections extensively
  • Created a Flickr site to host images of the collection at Pitt Rivers Museum
  • Condition reported and carried out conservation treatments where necessary to enable handling
  • Organized a conference to introduce Haida delegates to British curators and collections
  • Acted as note-takers during the handling sessions
  • Improved catalogue records both before and after the visit
  • Hosted community conservation workshops in Skidegate and Old Massett
  • Distributed knowledge gained through on-line databases and the Reciprocal Research Network
  • Created a film about the visit to help others interested in museum/ community partnerships
  • Presented their experiences at Conferences, guest lectures, and publications
  • Are contributing to a book about the Project

The Haida Project was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, and John Fell Fund (University of Oxford). Additional support for Haida delegates was received from the Gwaii Trust, Canada Council for the Arts, and community fundraising efforts on Haida Gwaii.