Accepted Paper:

Identities and meanings of the Powhatan Mantle: 400 years and counting  


Giovanna Vitelli (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

Research on the Powhatan Mantle examines its various identities that have intertwined over 400 years. The museum's recent engagement with Indigenous communities balances the Mantle's Indigenous importance, both historic and modern, with its value as a marker of Early Modern knowledge creation.

Paper long abstract:

Early historic ethnographic objects are often unmoored from their communities of origin because they lack provenance and detail of makers and users. Many of these objects reside in art museums, where their historic contexts, both indigenous and European, remain uncertain and under-researched.

At the Ashmolean Museum, a cross-disciplinary programme of research and forensic analyses begun on the Powhatan Mantle in 2017 has sparked reflections on the different strands of meaning that have become intertwined over four centuries. The Museum's emergent sensitivity to source communities and recent engagement with Indigenous specialists and scholars has highlighted the deep and powerful stories of the Powhatan Mantle, from its 17th century presence in the University's earliest collections to its continued influence in the wider Indigenous imagination.

The Museum's intentionally flexible research approach has made space for traditional practice and making alongside historical and forensic studies, as well as enabling contemporary community engagement. The long history of the Mantle lends itself to multiple and changing meanings, balancing a significant Indigenous identity with value as a marker of early modern European knowledge creation.

Panel P050
Re-thinking Source Communities: Plural, Urban Indigenous Communities and Cosmopolitan Objects