Dr Charlie Hall (Kent)
Research Administrator, ‘Beyond the Spectacle’
As many other scholars would no doubt agree, the middle chunk of a major research project can often be the most challenging, as well as the most interesting. This has certainly been true for ‘Beyond the Spectacle’, as we come to the end of the second of our three years. In the first year, we were imbued with a sense of great excitement and ambition, and countless avenues of exploration and endeavour opened up ahead of us; in the third, as we are just beginning to find out, the focus inexorably shifts towards concrete outcomes and we are now starting to invest greater energy in what we hope will be the major legacies of the project. However, the second year was a time of transition, when some of the less promising initiatives had to be set to one side and more focus applied to fewer areas. This was not all bad news though – while darlings had to be killed, breadth was replaced by depth. As a team, we were able to dig deeper into specific concepts and topics, and uncover plenty of new and interesting material. We were also able to build stronger relationships with other partners, and begin an important process of taking our research to as wide an audience as possible. It was also a time when the fruits of our labours began to take shape and we could see that the work we are doing would result in tangible gains, in a variety of different forms and fields!
One of our most substantial achievements this year has been the second of our artist residencies. In the summer, Sonny Assu (Kwakwaka’wakw) spent four weeks in Norwich, hosted by ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (SCVA). He created a major new artwork, designed in part in response to the collections of the SCVA, and his exhibition, ‘(Un)Named Maker’, will run there until the end of the year. Sonny’s residency culminated with a two-day symposium, also held at the SCVA, entitled ‘Bringing Light to the Dark: Visual Sovereignties in Contemporary Indigenous Art of the Americas’, which was a great success. Over 25 speakers presented at the symposium, on topics encompassing theatre, body art, trauma, curatorship, protest & resistance, and much more. Keynotes were delivered by Sonny on ‘Art and Activism’, and by Philip J. Deloria (Dakota descent) on ‘Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract’. All told, this was a great event which brought together scholars of all levels working in a wide range of fields to share their research and sometimes personal experiences – all in keeping with the spirit of our project and what we hope to achieve.
Elsewhere, another key strand of our work has been proceeding with great energy, namely our efforts to explore and, where possible, help to improve the way in which Native North American collections are stored, displayed and interpreted in British museums. Drawing on his extensive curatorial experience, this strand has been led by project Research Associate Jack Davy, and has resulted in a range of exciting initiatives. Firstly, the ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ website now features guides to Native North American museum collections in the south-east and south-west of England, with more to follow covering other regions in due course. Secondly, the project has developed a close relationship with Hastings Museum in order to help them craft a policy on how they display their collections, and how they facilitate engagement with Indigenous communities and visitors. This is a truly ground-breaking move, as such a policy would be the first of its kind in the UK, thus reflecting the commitment of the project to alter perceptions of Native Americans in Britain for the future. Thirdly, building on this work, Jack is also currently in the process of writing a book for the Cambridge University Press Elements series, which will explore Native American responses to historic collections in British museums and which will utilise the Hastings partnership as a case study to highlight future directions for policy. The book is likely to appear in print at some point in late 2020 or early 2021. As these examples show, documenting and helping to influence Indigenous engagements with UK museums remains one of the primary goals of the project.
Another key element of our research has been to focus on geography and ideas of space, in particular through the use of mapping technologies. While our utilisation of ArcGIS, StoryMaps and other similar software remains a work in progress which we expect to come to full fruition in Year Three, more concrete outputs have emerged in the form of walking tours. The lead on these has been taken by our Research Associate at Kent, Kate Rennard, who has used the app PocketSights (available via the App Store and Google Play) to make walking tours of Bristol and Norwich, which are readily available to the public and allow them to explore sites of relevance to Indigenous North American history in those cities. Similar tours for other British cities, including Salford and Canterbury, will be available soon. Moreover, our innovative use of this technology means we have stepped outside our usual humanities comfort zone and presented our work at the Norwich Science Festival (18-26 October), an effort led by project research assistant, Josie Howl. This just goes to show the many ways in which we are utilising new techniques and technologies to alter approaches to our subject area.
Of course, the work which ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ does is not carried out in a vacuum. One of our greatest strengths is the large network of collaborators and partners with whom we work, and we have invested a great amount of time and energy throughout Year Two in fostering, developing and deepening these invaluable relationships. There are far too many examples to list them all here, but a few key cases should prove illustrative. In January, we welcomed a delegation from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who were retracing the steps of a 1762 Cherokee delegation and who took part in the London New Year’s Day Parade. This represents a further bolstering of the project’s already strong relationship with the EBCI. Then, in June, ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ worked with long-term partner Border Crossings on the latter’s Origins Festival, presenting a panel and attending events such as the landmark performance of Madeline Sayet’s (Mohegan) Where We Belong at Shakespeare’s Globe. And in July, we worked closely with one of our board members, Philip Hatfield at the British Library, to host an edit-a-thon – this included sixteen students from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who had come to London as part of a two-week study abroad course led by our International Co-Investigator, Coll Thrush. The students wrote Wikipedia entries, conducted research in the BL’s databases, and some even found accounts of their own ancestors in the collections. Alongside these major events, members of the ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ team have given a range of talks and conference papers, including at the American Indian Workshop in Poznan, the British Association of Canadian Studies conference in London, the Edinburgh City Library, the Association of Social Anthropologists in Norwich, and the Sandwich branch of the Women’s Institute (!), showcasing our continued commitment to share our research with the widest possible audience.
Overall then, Year Two has been a busy year and there has been much that we have achieved that there is not space to mention here. In particular, members of the team have continued to visit archives, communicate with and interview Native Americans who have travelled to the UK (or worked/lived here), and ensure that our research has an impact beyond academia. Looking ahead to the future, Year Three looks set to be our most exciting year yet. Ideas and initiatives we have been working on since the beginning of the project will begin to reach maturity and we can think much more actively about what we want to be the major outcomes and legacies of the project. Two particular targets that are on the horizon for us – the first is a major three-day conference, due to take place in Paris on 17-19 June 2020, entitled ‘Indigenous Mobilities: Travelers through the Heart(s) of Empire’. The second is a book, co-authored by all members of the team and featuring interludes from Native scholars, writers, artists, and others, which will be written over the course of the next year, tie together many of the project’s strands, and go some way to showcasing exactly what ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ is all about.