“When is a Bear a Frog?” : Examining Material Culture Interpretation

Amy Woodson-Boulton

As someone interested in the history of museums, I have thought for a long time about how we can use the objects in museums’ collections along with their archives to enrich our understanding of both. Recently I have been studying how ideas about art and the discipline of anthropology shaped the reception, display, and interpretation of Indigenous material culture in the late nineteenth century. At the height of the British Empire, British missionaries, anthropologists, and other collectors brought back and exhibited objects of the peoples whom they had conquered — peoples they defined as “primitive.”

Anthropology as a discipline emerged at this time, entangled with colonial power structures, and some anthropologists embraced and helped to popularize racist ideas of socio-cultural evolution. These legacies continue to haunt our relationships to Indigenous material culture. Understanding these relationships is part of the broader project of decolonizing museums, and Indigenous communities and scholars have made it clear that we need to be aware of the colonial context of the acquisition and display of these objects. The rightful ownership of Indigenous arts and historical artifacts is the subject of intense debate, particularly in the case of objects held by former colonial powers.

Alongside their original meanings and histories of acquisition, it is also important to show the ways that material culture acted within the cultures that collected it. Examining this question allows us to place museums and their collections in their own historical and cultural contexts and to remember that objects have meaning in British and European contexts, and not just in their cultures of origin. In thinking about Indigenous art and culture in this way, the objects themselves are vital, because they often give us clues to their histories of use and interpretation. When used in conjunction with museum archives, such objects can help us see some of the distortions that took place in the moment of their collecting and display, and how they functioned in their collectors’ culture.

To illustrate these ideas, let’s consider one particular Haida object, now in the collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, England.

Wooden handle with red text

Photograph of label on dagger handle from Pitt-Rivers Museum, 1891.49.41. Haida, Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. See http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID4988.html

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The Branded Puerto Rican Drink with Cuban Connections

Carlos A. Santiago

In 1893, Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez referred to Cuba and Puerto Rico as “two wings of the same bird.” Both islands experienced colonialism under the Spanish empire and were exploited by the hegemonic power of the United States. Although they have had similar experiences, these two islands have historically been viewed differently.

During the nineteenth and twentieth century, Cuba was often viewed as “sexy” by Americans while Puerto Rico was seen as unattractive. Following the Cuban Revolution this perception began to shift and the unfolding of this change can be seen through changes in material culture.

Today, many of us know Bacardi as a Puerto Rican rum. The Bacardi brand often conjures images of sandy beaches and the iconic Bacardi black bat. While the black bat symbol that is branded on every bottle of Bacardi has existed since its inception, the words “Puerto Rican Rum” were not always there. That is because Bacardi was established in Cuba during its national period.

bottle of rum

Bottle of Bacadi rum, 1862.

The differences between an 1862 Bacardi bottle and one bottle from 2020 highlights how a Cuban brand has been reinterpreted as a Puerto Rican brand aligned with capitalism. In 1862, a Bacardi bottle would have the words “Santiago de Cuba” rather than “Puerto Rico” inscribed on them. After the Cuba Revolution, Bacardi’s Cuban roots began to be erased.

Bacardi is not just a brand of rum. It is the surname of a prominent Cuban family, Don Facundo Bacardi was the company founder in 1862. The establishment of Bacardi rum happened before Cuba engaged in the Ten Years’ War. Led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, this was a conflict that set the stage for Cuban independence from Spain in 1898. Even before this event, Cubans were expressing themselves as people who were different from their colonizers. Tensions rose in the 1860s, alongside the rise of nationalism across the island as many Cubans demanded independence and the abolition of slavery. Continue reading

The Toronto Church Memorials to Soldiers of the Great War Project

Ross Fair

Cenotaph with large group of people

The City of Toronto cenotaph unveiled, November 11, 1925. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds. Fonds 1266, Item 6584.

Each Remembrance Day, Torontonians assemble for services of remembrance at public cenotaphs such as the civic cenotaph at the front steps of Old City Hall, the University of Toronto’s Soldiers’ Tower and at the Cross of Sacrifice in Prospect Cemetery, where hundreds of Great War soldiers are buried. Yet, these public sites of remembrance represent but a small fraction of the memorials to the fallen in Toronto.

As a way to explore the history of other memorials to the fallen, in 2014 I launched the Toronto Church Memorials to Soldiers of the Great War project as an experiential learning initiative. With funding from Ryerson University’s Department of History, I have hired six different undergraduate research assistants on individual short-term contracts. They have conducted all the research and writing for this project, which aims to identify and contextualize the material culture of war memorials to the fallen of the Great War erected in Toronto’s churches. Using textual records this project aims to identify and catalogue all memorials erected in all churches, including those churches that have been repurposed, demolished, or destroyed by fire.

The goal for a future, final phase of the project is to produce an online, mapped database of these memorials. This virtual work will identify the location of each church, its memorial(s) and the individual(s) they memorialize. The database will restore, in a virtual sense, the geography of memory established by Torontonians in the immediate postwar era. Continue reading

Tombs with a View: Memorial Stones and Transatlantic Family Histories

Krista Barclay 

Calton Burial Gound Gate

New Calton Burial Ground Entrance Gate (photo by author, Sept. 2018)

As I entered Edinburgh’s New Calton Burial Ground in the fall of 2018, I was struck by the placard on the front gate advertising ‘tombs with a view’ – the view from the cemetery’s perch on Calton Hill really was spectacular. I was visiting the site as part of my dissertation research on the families formed by Indigenous women and their British husbands, who worked as officers with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in the early nineteenth century.

New Calton Burial Ground certainly delivered on its advertised ‘tombs with a view’, but my visit also left me thinking that gravestones and memorial stones give us a view (or views) on family relationships, power dynamics, mobility, and material circumstances. Like other examples of material culture, people construct meaning from these objects, and these meanings change across time and context.  The subtleties of family relations are read differently by mourners and friends, distant descendants, artists, tourists, archaeologists, or historians.

View overlooking houses

View from New Calton Burial Ground (photo by author, Sept. 2018)

I visited the cemetery looking for the grave of Sarah McLeod Ballenden, a 33-year old woman of Indigenous and Scottish heritage who was born in what became Canada and died in Edinburgh in 1853. Rather than the individual gravestone I expected, Sarah’s grave was marked by a large family memorial stone that included the names of her husband (retired HBC officer John Ballenden), four of their children, and several Ballenden relatives.

Twelve members of the extended Ballenden family who died between 1817 and 1872 in Canada and Scotland are commemorated on this stone. Most of these relatives were either born in Indigenous territories claimed by the HBC or spent their adult lives dependant on incomes from the HBC’s North American fur trade. From its perch on Calton Hill, this memorial stone demonstrates the transatlantic webs of connection that held British imperialism together in what became Canada. Continue reading

Art, Taxidermy and Notebooks: The University Art Gallery As Site Of Cross-Disciplinary Exploration

Laurie Dalton

As as the Director/Curator of a university art gallery that holds a permanent collection of art, I often think of ways in which objects can be displayed and understood in new contexts. Typically, museum collections are siloed, as are the displays. For example, at a natural history museum you rarely see visual art being used as a counterpoint to understanding scientific specimens. With the exhibition, the Boundless and Framed, I wanted to see how material culture collections might be displayed together, and how this might in turn inform and encourage a more cross-disciplinary understanding of the objects on display.

Exhibition being installed

Installation view, The Boundless and the Framed, Acadia University Art Gallery

Universities often have several collections, typically housed entirely separately and rarely presented together. These collections may be hard to access, or rest solely under a department’s purview. This post shows the fertile ground for research and exploration in university collections – and demonstrates how they can function to expand our knowledge and understanding across disciplines and material culture. The exhibition, The Boundless and Framed, gathered objects from three seemingly disparate collections and displayed them together for the first time. The exhibition highlighted how artists, writers and scientists have represented, reflected and responded to the cultural, social and scientific realm of birds.

The first set of objects came from the permanent collection of art and formed the central focus of the exhibition in the art gallery. Artwork included well known Atlantic Canadian artists such as Alex Colville, to Inuit sculptures and works on paper, Asian imperial rank badges, and works by women artists. The second set of objects came from the Esther Clark Wright archives. This included archival documents such as the notes of ornithologist and conservationist Robie Tufts. The third set of objects came from the Acadia Wildlife Museum, a natural history collection that is predominantly used for teaching and learning in the biology department. Material in the exhibition from this collection included a selection of natural specimens of the same birds depicted in the artwork on display.

The exhibition explored the ways in which birds have been understood through these collections: as artistic study, as symbolic representation and as scientific inquiry. It showed how material culture objects can inform each other and how thematic connections move away from a binary timeline and expands context in which an object can be understood. Continue reading

Giving Deaccessioned Museum Objects A New Home And Purpose

Cara Tremain

Group of students looking at artifacts

Students in ANTH 1195: Museum Studies handling the ethnographic teaching collection. Photo by author.

In 2018, the Kelowna Museums Society (KMS) announced their decision to deaccession various ethnographic objects from Oceania via the BC Museums Association listserv. The KMS consists of three museums that together aim to reflect the culture and community of the Okanagan region. Thus, the deaccessioned objects were not relevant to their mandate of focusing on objects of local significance. With an eye to creating a new ‘Museum Studies’ course, and to provide students with opportunities for hands-on learning, I proposed that the Anthropology laboratory at Langara College, where I work as an instructor, give a new home to some of these objects. My enthusiasm for creating an ethnographic teaching collection was matched by the college, and I was given permission to co-ordinate the transfer.

Langara College is a post-secondary institution located in Vancouver, on the unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation. Langara provides a foundation to further education and career development, with many students choosing to study at the college prior to transferring to other higher-education institutions. The variety of academic courses at the college include those offered by faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, including several hands-on focused classes that make use of equipment and resources in the Anthropology laboratory.

The number of objects being deaccessioned from the KMS far exceeded the resources of our Anthropology laboratory and I only requested a portion of the available objects for transfer. I envisioned the teaching collection being comprised of objects that would make for interesting tactile experiences, yet small enough that they could be easily stored in our laboratory. As a result, the objects I requested include several body decorations and other items of wearable material culture such as pendants, armbands, a vest, and a koteka (a sheath worn to cover male genitalia). The objects also include small-scale items such as flutes, basketry, a bag, and a ceramic bowl. Continue reading

Materiality and Theatre History at the Stratford Festival Archives

Stephanie Johns and Stephanie Vaillant

Stratford artifacts

Items from the Stratford Festival collection including: snake candelabra from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968, directed by John Hirsch, designed by Leslie Hurry), garments worn by Zoe Caldwell as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (1967, directed by Michael Langham, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch) and chandelier from The Country Wife (1983, directed by Richard Cottrell, designed by Desmond Heeley, performed at the Avon Theatre). Photograph by Stephanie Vaillant.

The Stratford Festival, located in Stratford, Ontario, is North America’s largest repertory theatre that focuses on performances of Shakespeare, the classics, musicals and new works. The Stratford Festival Archives, housed at 350 Douro Street, is responsible for collecting and caring for the Stratford Festival’s history in its many and varied forms. As a way of understanding the material culture held by the Stratford Festival Stephanie Johns, Education Associate (Teaching Focus), interviewed Stephanie Vaillant, Cataloguing and Digitizing Archivist, to explore why this type of object-centred archival collection is an integral part of Canadian theatre history.  Their interview follows:

What does the collection consist of?
We have a multi-faceted collection at the Stratford Festival. Our materials date back to our first season in 1953, with a few pieces from 1952. We have done our best to document the evolution of the Festival from an idea into the thriving company it is today. This evolution is documented through all sorts of materials – everything from press clippings and administrative records to selected prop and costume pieces. In addition to capturing our administrative history, we strive to collect everything required to recreate each and every one of our past productions.

Why maintain this kind of collection?
The Stratford Festival has had a massive impact on the Canadian theatre scene. Going back to the 1950s, when very few professional theatre companies existed in Canada, you had this little dream that grew in a small town and, in doing so, bred opportunities and created artists who have gone on to either create or work in theatres all across Canada. Essentially, the Stratford Festival played a prominent role in creating a national theatre industry. That kind of impact is well worth documenting.

Theatre is ephemeral: you see the play once and then it closes. In your opinion, how does maintaining this collection help lengthen the understanding and experience of theatre in general but also the work Stratford is producing?
Theatre by its nature is an artistic compilation: it cannot be created in isolation. In fact, some of our main user groups are artists who wish to consult the work of those who have previously created something they are currently trying to create. For example, we often have actors come in to consult recordings of performances – they want to see how others have interpreted roles they are undertaking in the upcoming season. Designers frequently come in to see how their fellow professionals have approached a certain production or time period, and directors do likewise. Essentially, preserving how other people have approached material enables others to build on those ideas. It’s the old theory of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – you build off what has already come before you. Continue reading

Stitching our World Back together – Material Culture Revitalization at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig

Mitch Case

Group of people beading around a table

Bead night at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig.

“Everyone has the right to feel good about who they are, and for us, with all that we have been through since the coming of the visitors to our island, this place given to us by the creator – it’s been a long time that we have not felt that way, but everyone, and there is no exception to this, everyone has the right to feel good about who they are” – Onaubinisay

This statement, while seemingly uncomplicated, is a profound expression of an important aspect of the Anishinaabe worldview and serves as a guide for how we as Anishinaabe peoples can heal the wounds in our communities. As a result of the legacy of the Residential School system, the loss of land, language and culture, and other unresolved trauma – Indigenous peoples collectively and individually –  have existed for a long time without the ability to feel good about who we are.

For Anishinaabe peoples, material culture carries so much meaning. Moccasins don’t just cover our feet, they connect us to our mother the earth – they are how we leave spiritual tracks for our descendants to follow. Our floral beaded vests aren’t just for warmth, they express our appreciation for life. Our medallions are not just jewelry, they express our spiritual identities and let creation know something about us before we even say “Boozhoo.” Items and objects which in other cultures would just be tools or accessories, are for us living beings, they are our relatives, we dress them up, to protect them and to show our appreciation for the work they do for us.

Table filled with beadwork

Beadwork on Display From Mitch Case’s collection. Includes beadwork by numerous makers. 

Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig is a unique and beautiful Anishinaabe educational institution, located in Bawaating (Sault Ste Marie). Shingwauk is the embodiment of the vision of Chief Shingwaukonse (1773-1854) who spoke of a “teaching wigwam” where the children of his community could learn the skills and tools of the new society that has come to our lands. His vision was taken over and corrupted by church and government officials and it became a sad period in our history. Located on the site of the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School, and in partnership with Algoma University, Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig offers two, one-of-a-kind undergraduate degree programs, Anishinaabe Studies and Anishinaabemowin. Continue reading

Memory and Objects: Family History, Local Economy, and Hook Rugs

Stephanie Pettigrew

Floral hook rug

Rug made as a gift for my Great-Aunt Stella and her husband, Yvon, by my grandmother, Marguerite-Anne Lefort. Photo provided by Stella Michaud/Lisa Michaud-Sheffar.

I would like to thank all of my family members who participated in helping me put this together, particularly my sister Debbie, my great-aunts Cecile, Stella, and Sophie, and my cousins Yvonne, Lisa, and Laura, who helped immensely with photos, by sharing memories, and spending hours chatting with me about what were sometimes difficult topics. Thank you.

I need to start this with a disclaimer: this was a difficult, emotional post for me to write. I had to get up, walk away, and feel many feelings before I could get back to writing. When I proposed this, all I could think about was the excitement of discussing the beautiful textile work done by the women in my family, especially my grandmother. I really should have foreseen the emotional impact of discussing my grandmother’s death. The emotional impact of my grandmother’s hook rugs on me might be one of the best testimonies of the significance of material culture on memory.

When my sister and I imagined ourselves getting married as kids, we imagined our Mémére being there, just as she had been for all our moments, big and small. Mémére was everything for us. Mother, protector, teacher, and provider. My memories of her as a child are wild and varied, and would likely not align with most people’s archetypal French-Canadian “grandmother” figure. I remember her chopping wood in the backyard. I remember her teaching me how to cook an egg and crêpes. I remember the enormous meals she would prepare for company, and the time that I got stung by a wasp and she grabbed the wasp’s nest with her bare hands and threw it into a fire out of pure spite. But most of all, I remember watching her hook rugs in the evenings, after the day’s work was done.

Hook rug frame

A hook rug frame, containing many balls of different coloured yarn. Photo provided by Yvonne Lefort-Goosens.

Cheticamp hook rugs are somewhat famous, and not just in Nova Scotia. Queen Elizabeth II had her portrait done by a Cheticamp hook rug artist, Elizabeth Lefort. There is a Cheticamp hook rug hanging in the Pauline Vanier room of Rideau Hall. The Vatican even has a hook rug, because of course the extremely catholic women of Cheticamp would send a hook rug to the Vatican. My own grandmother made a rug for the sacristy of the church in Cheticamp, a donation of not only materials but hard work and hours of labour. Continue reading

Material Culture Theme Week Introduction

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Krista McCracken
Material Culture Theme week

My love of material culture is tied to my love of textiles. In particular, I love embroidery and I am interested in the use of textiles to explore personal and community connections to the past. I put the call out for this theme week with the hopes of bringing together posts that explored the impact of material culture on our understandings of the past. I also had the not so secret hope that someone might write about textiles. 

Someone did write about textiles, but this week encompasses much more than textiles as material culture. The submissions to this theme week came from a huge range of professional, personal, and regional perspectives. The posts bring together perspectives on material culture from both inside and outside academia and the range of posts really speak to the breath of the field of material culture. 

So, what exactly is material culture? At the most basic level, material culture is the study of the objects that are used by people and communities and how those objects reflect a community or inform the identity of a community. 

The study of material culture is incredibly diverse and encompasses a range of disciplines including history, sociology, anthropology, fine art, and others. People who study and preserve material culture exist in a whole range of places – museums, academia, archives, and communities. Despite the abundance of people who work with material culture, material culture tends to be underrepresented within academic historical dialogue. This series bridges academic and practitioner divides and encourages readers to reflect on how material culture interests with history, daily life, and our understand the past.

Throughout this week we hope to deepen discussions between material culture professionals,historians, and those working in the community, so please be sure to engage and further the conversation in the comments section and on Twitter. You can reach us at @ActiveHist