A state of perpetual wonderment and astonishment: this is the feeling that uniquely characterises childhood. The whole world is new and waiting to be discovered. My own discoveries, apart from inspecting the bottom of my wellies after traipsing through the farm where we used to live, took place in the company of a set of children’s encyclopaedias. Given to me by my family, they were often read to me; my role involved pointing at the many illustrations and photographs. More often than not however, I would sneak away alone to some corner of the room and settle down to begin my journey, examining the pictures of flora, fauna and fantastical minerals and geodes and inspecting their inscriptions.

Recreating this feeling of wonderment at the world and its marvellous inhabitants was the ambition of wealthy men in the Renaissance period. Many constructed elaborate cabinets of curiosities and wonder-rooms or Wunderkammer. These were filled with extraordinary and sometimes fake objects they had purchased or taken on their travels. Such objects included wonders of the natural world: preserved animals, horns, tusks, and minerals alongside man-made curiosities such as sculptures, tools and clothing.

The Danish physician and lover of antiquities Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities.
The Danish physician and lover of antiquities Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities.

Following the cautious footsteps echoing on the cold marble steps of the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is perhaps the only modern-day equivalent of entering a wonder-room. Case upon case of objects reverberate around the dimly lit hall and its many floors. Artefacts from across the globe are crammed next to each other, representing unique forms of human expression throughout place and time.

The placing of unrelated objects alongside each other within a wonder-room encouraged viewers to compare and find parallels. It also gave the impression of a dynamic world, endlessly transforming. This feeling is recreated at Pitt Rivers. Objects are organised into categories according to how they are used, revealing regional and historical variations and eschewing the chronological approach adopted by most other museums. This inspires a notion of interconnectedness and provokes further curiosity into the past lives of particular objects.

This curiosity is embodied in the children that visit the museum. After jostling to hang up their coats and bags they begin their own journeys, attempting to find and identify different but interconnected objects. Later, I watch on as one teacher describes the materials such as porcupine quills, beads, scraps of cloth and animal teeth used by Native American women to decorate clothing. The children then translate this excitement and knowledge of the museum’s collections into their own objects: decorating masks and constructing their own shadow puppets.

Alongside this curiosity and wonderment, wonder-rooms frequently had an ulterior motive: to showcase the owner’s imperial power and magnificence by displaying objects from their conquests. This can also be felt at Pitt Rivers. The faded tags that were first assigned to the objects often resemble their chequered past.

The very fragility of these objects, represented by their aged display tags, highlights the necessity of keeping them behind glass. The dim lights of the museum, whilst enhancing the treasure-like nature of the displays, are for practical reasons so as not to damage the objects. But herein lies a further problem. The price of this preservation is the relegation of these items to the past, as curios of a bygone era. When in fact, many of these objects have a present day significance as important cultural signifiers. Objects previously created to be worn, touched or used in important ceremonies now lie still. An ornately decorated moccasin designed to be placed on a baby’s foot, a gift from another member of the family, now rests on a shelf. They become passive objects, viewed but later forgotten.

This passivity has the potential to rob objects of the stories they once told. The dangers of this are more significant now than ever with the rapid rise in the loss of traditional languages and cultures. Objects are a distinct part of this language of story telling and their removal from this context may result in the devastating loss of cultural knowledge and past experience.

To combat this, the Pitt Rivers Museum has embarked on a number of projects aiming to reconnect objects with their cultures. The Blackfoot Shirts Project was intended to assist Blackfoot people to reaffirm this part of their heritage. The Blackfoot people live on three reserves in southern Alberta, Canada, the Kainai Nation, the Piikani Nation and the Siksika Nation, and one reservation in northern Montana, USA.

The shirts range from work shirts designed to protect the body from wind and branches to beautifully fringed and decorated shirts for formal occasions.

Blackfoot shirt with porcupine quill decoration and painted images of war deeds.
Blackfoot shirt with porcupine quill decoration and painted images of war deeds.

Despite the fragile nature of the shirts, elders, ceremonialists, artists, teachers and high school students were able to handle the shirts and learn about their history. The reactions of the Blackfoot people reveal the importance and significance of these objects, ‘people of all ages gasped audibly at their beauty and power.’ ‘Some chose to speak or to sing to the shirts… Others brought gifts to honour the ancestors, or dressed in their best clothes.’ ‘Many women cried at the sight of the shirts, moved by both their beauty and by the fact they had never before had the chance to see such important heritage items’. These reactions are made all the more powerful with the knowledge that Native American people were discouraged and even banned from wearing traditional clothes under restrictive government policies. These shirts therefore have a dual meaning of not only identity but also defiance and resistance.

The wonder-rooms of the renaissance have been described as ‘a microcosm or theatre of the world, and a memory theatre.’ Yet, in places such as the Pitt Rivers Museum these are no longer forgotten memories. By harnessing the innate qualities of childhood: curiosity, wonderment and imagination, children and adults alike are able to connect with objects, creating memories and stories of their own.

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December 28, 2015