from the Paul Mellon Center
Where: Online, and at the Paul Mellon Center, 16 Bedford Square, London, UK
When: March 1, 2023, 19:00 – 22:00 GMT
This online and in person event – part of In Conversation: New Directions in Art History, a series exploring the changing modes and methodologies of approaching visual and material worlds – will feature discussions on “Indigenous objects abroad” from two exciting speakers: Robbie Richardson of Princeton University and GRASAC co-founder Ruth Phillips.
Robbie Richardson – “Peace Pipes” in Europe: Collecting the Calumet in the Eighteenth Century
This talk will consider early European collections of Indigenous tobacco pipes, often called “peace pipes” or calumets (a word of French origin). Described as “the most mysterious thing in the world” by seventeenth-century Jesuits for their perceived power and significance among south-eastern nations, pipes would over time become one of the ubiquitous icons of Indigeneity in western eyes. Part of their inscrutability from the British perspective was that their own tobacco pipes were ephemeral and disposable, with many even still washing up daily on the shores of the Thames.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, one of the most popular trade goods which Europeans brought to Indigenous nations were steel European-manufactured “pipe-tomahawks”, which blended metaphors of peace and war. The manifestation of this transcultural object is itself revealing of the complex dynamics of material cultural production. Notwithstanding their provenance in Sheffield and Birmingham steel mills, pipe-tomahawks became widely collected as Indigenous curiosities by British soldiers and collectors. This talk will discuss British representations of Indigenous diplomacy and spirituality through their understanding and collecting of the calumet. It will look at several of the pipes that found their ways into European collections, to unravel Indigenous practices and agency.
Ruth B. Phillips – Curiosity and Belonging: Legacies of Eighteenth-century Collecting in the Twenty-first Century
This talk will examine two contrasting modes of engagement between Europeans and Indigenous peoples in eighteenth-century North America and how these interactions led to the formation of public and private collections. It will urge that in the twenty-first century developing accurate understandings of eighteenth-century collecting practices can usefully disrupt assumptions about the restitution of Indigenous cultural belongings.
The periodic wars waged for colonial control of eastern North America brought tens of thousands of British, French, German and Swiss soldiers into the region. Both officers and common soldiers were avid collectors of curiosities for themselves, to present to patrons and family members, and to resell at a profit. Indigenous makers, for their part, actively produced finely made ornaments, pipes, moccasins and other items for the trade, acquiring in return: guns and tools that made hunting and warfare more effective; rum, tea, pottery, woollen cloth and
printed cottons that made life more enjoyable; and silk ribbons, woollen yarn, glass beads, needles, thread and manufactured wampum beads that stimulated artistic creativity. There could also, however, have been other reasons for an Indigenous maker to produce these items for outsiders, for they were also presented in diplomatic negotiations to ratify treaty agreements and in ritual adoptions that transformed a military officer or a colonial official into a member of an Indigenous kin group who could be expected to support its interests.
Contemporary Indigenous peoples are actively tracing their cultural belongings in museum collections as part of a larger process of decolonisation that aims to recover histories of Indigenous agency and heal the damages and losses enacted by centuries of colonial rule. This talk argues that restitution, if conducted in ignorance of the historical circumstances of gifting or trade, risks, on the one hand, denying the agency of Indigenous peoples who chose to engage in curiosity production and, on the other, disappearing the material embodiments of agreements that, although made long ago, still demand to be recognised and honoured.