Seeing Past the Settler Gaze: Objects and Objectivity in the Post-Colonial Archive
Location British Museum - Studio
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 1


  • Mona Holmlund (Dalhousie University) email
  • Cheryl Avery (University of Saskatchewan) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

This panel will explore the role of material and visual culture, particularly Indigenous artefacts and records, in colonial archives and museums. We seek to highlight how considering unconventional or under-studied archival records can lead to new insights into colonial and Indigenous histories.

Long abstract

Since contact, objects and records of various kinds have circulated between explorers, settlers, field researchers, and Indigenous groups. Are the power dynamics embedded in these objects neutralized once they have entered colonial archives? This panel will explore the assumptions underpinning Western archiving processes. These include not only acts of physical preservation in formal institutional spaces, but also the memorialization (and forgetting) of art, visual and material cultures. We are also interested in the way that archives, both physical and imagined, continue to shape individual, regional, national, and global identities.

The co-conveners will each present case studies of the place of material culture in the holdings of institutional archives. Art Historian Dr. Mona Holmlund will consider visual culture from a region conventionally excluded from Western art histories: Saskatchewan, Canada. Archivist Cheryl Avery will present examples of Indigenous presence hidden in Western record management and archival practices. History PhD student Katherine Crooks will reflect on the exchange of objects and knowledge between First Nations communities and field researchers in nineteenth-century Canada, as well as the contemporary implications of housing Indigenous artefacts in colonial museums. This panel welcomes Indigenous scholars in particular, and other researchers interested in discussing any aspect of material culture in its relationship to colonial archives or museums, and the potential for decolonizing these spaces.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Seeing Past the Settler Gaze: An Introduction to Objects and Objectivity in the Post-Colonial Archive

Authors: Mona Holmlund (Dalhousie University) email
Cheryl Avery (University of Saskatchewan) email

Short abstract

As co-convenors, Archivist Cheryl Avery and Art Historian Dr. Mona Holmlund will introduce the themes of the panel, using case studies from the University of Saskatchewan Archives.

Long abstract

The Saskatchewan context of marginalization, both within the Canadian national narrative, and of the province’s Indigenous population in particular, provides the backdrop to a discussion of how material culture is often over-looked in traditional archival, historical and art historical practices. Avery and Holmlund will present examples of Indigenous presence hidden in western record management, archival practices and art history. Avery will consider ways in which archival records may ‘slip through the cracks’ of traditional appraisal and selection, demonstrating how unexpected discoveries might also affect context and how material is weighed as evidence. Holmlund uses the specific example of the reclamation of mid-20thC scrapbooks to reveal new aspects of visual culture from a region, and a people, conventionally excluded from Western art histories. This presentation suggests that once a researcher has been able to ’see past the settler gaze’ that inflects colonial archives, the task then becomes one of ‘reading between the lines’ both to find the material sources that may be illuminating and to understand what they might be able to tell us.

Curiosity and Conversion: Congolese Experiences in Baptist Missionary Archives

Author: Amelia King (Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia) email

Short abstract

This paper demonstrates the potential to understand Congolese strategies for adaptation in processes of Christianisation through missionary authored texts, images & objects. Baptist Missionary Society archives are used to expose nuances in the ways Congolese individuals experienced social change.

Long abstract

The production and consumption of objects, including photographs and texts, among Congolese people and British missionaries formed part of the way in which these cultures came to know and relate to one another in the colonial state. As such, material heritage from this period attests to multiple experiences of convergence and adaptation. This paper will demonstrate methodological approaches to using the material culture of mission environments to understand relationships between indigenous people and Baptist missionaries in northern Congo c.1880-1915.

The intercultural exchange of objects facilitated by mission communities offers a means of accessing shifting ascriptions of value in processes of negotiating identity, political affiliation, ideological translation and cultural resistance. Central to this research is emphasis on the agency of indigenous people in converting to Christianity in rural communities.

It will explore the theme of curiosity as it manifested in forms of collecting (through translation work, photography and 'curios') by Baptist missionaries, but importantly, draw out the ways in which this intrigue was mutual. In this way it will be shown how seemingly sterile and prescribed colonial representations can be used as sources to interpret Congolese reactions and action in a changing sociocultural milieu.

This paper arises from a larger doctoral project in progress focused on the nature of conversion to Christianity in northern Congo among Baptist communities. To this point original research has been undertaken using archives and object collections housed in UK institutions. Additional phases of work will be carried out using material elsewhere in the course of research.

Interrogating Invisibility: Insights from Creating a Nuxalk Digital Archive of Museum Belongings

Author: Emily Leischner (University of British Columbia) email

Short abstract

This paper explores what the process of creating an Indigenous-controlled archive of museum objects can offer discourses on invisibility in 1) challenging assumptions about the invisibility of settler colonial ideologies within archival processes and 2) how object meanings can be made visible.

Long abstract

Writing on Indigenous-initiated and Indigenous-directed work to document and organize their belongings online is significantly underrepresented in published literature. While museums, universities and partnering institutions are increasingly collaborating on digital initiatives with Indigenous communities, the resulting projects necessarily involve compromise between parties working with often different goals, publics, ontologies and epistemologies. Understanding and evaluating the meaning, value and success of these types of digital heritage archival projects that Indigenous peoples control at all levels is essential, and to move forward in this field without the inclusion of such knowledge would be problematic and inadequate for addressing the decolonizing aims of this work.

The Cultural Stewardship Office of the Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola, British Columbia has started to compile a digital database of belongings from their territory to bring together objects that are still disparately located in various museums across the continent. Their goal is to create a searchable catalogue of heritage objects designed solely for community access. While this project is ongoing, it already offers significant contributions to conversations on decolonizing archives and museum collections databases. This paper explores what the process of creating an Indigenous-controlled archive of museum objects can offer discourses on invisibility in 1) challenging assumptions about the invisibility of settler colonial ideologies within archival processes and 2) how object meanings can be made visible.

Unsettling Histories: Uncovering an early Coast Salish collection at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland

Author: Christopher Martin (University of Aberdeen) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the histories of an early Coast Salish collection at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery to demonstrate how objects can reveal alternative narratives of cross-cultural interaction and continue to shape knowledge and relationships from within a museum setting.

Long abstract

First Nations collections from the Northwest Coast in British museums date primarily from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century, shaping the stories they have been able to tell. Familiar narratives of power relations between Indigenous and Settler communities during British colonial rule have tended to dominate, ignoring individual object histories in favour of broad narratives, and homogenising object stories rather than exploring their differences. This paper discusses the largely overlooked terrestrial fur-trade collections which predate large-scale non-Indigenous settlement of the Pacific Northwest to examine how individual object histories can affect the construction of records and exhibits. Focussing on a small collection of Coast Salish models and cultural possessions donated to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in 1833, I will problematise the often-assumed stasis of museum objects by demonstrating the ways in which historic artefacts have the capacity to challenge dominant narratives and foster contemporary knowledge sharing. The power dynamics entangled within this collection tell of the Hudson's Bay Company's reliance on First Nations knowledge and exchange networks, and the intimate stories of individual relationships which both allowed and shaped early collections. By developing understanding of the personal relationships which shaped museum collections, I will shed light on a period of collecting which directly influenced nineteenth-century scientific knowledge in Scotland and shaped intercultural exchange in Western Canada. Through these individual narratives, I will explore how the museum lives of objects and associated archives shape collections, and contribute to the comprehensive understanding of collecting as a continuing engagement between Scotland and Canada.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.