Upcoming Events

Indigenous Objects Abroad

Research Seminar – Robbie Richardson, Ruth Phillips

  • 1 March 2023
  • 5:00 – 7:00 pm
  • Part of the series 'In Conversation: New Directions in Art History', which will explore the changing modes and methodologies of approaching visual and material worlds. Running from January to March 2023.
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

Robbie Richardson, Princeton University

“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, Professor Emerita, Carleton University, Ottawa

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.

Image caption: Smoking-pipe, 1600-1750 © The Trustees of the British Museum

About the speakers

  • Robbie Richardson is Assistant Professor of English at Princeton University and the author of The Savage and Modern Self: North American Indians in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2018). He has recent chapters in Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Nation of Makers (Bloomsbury, 2020) and in Small Things in the Eighteenth Century: The Political and Personal Value of the Miniature (Cambridge University Press, 2022), and forthcoming pieces in Studies in Romanticism, Eighteenth-Century Studies and Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. He is currently working on a monograph about Indigenous objects from the Americas and South Pacific in Europe up until the end of the eighteenth century. He is a citizen of Pabineau Mi’kmaq First Nation in New Brunswick, Canada.

  • Ruth B. Phillips is Professor of Art History Emerita at Carleton University, Ottawa where she was also appointed to a Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture. She earned her PhD in African art history at SOAS, University of London, and has since focused on Indigenous North American arts and museology. As director of the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia from 1997–2002 she initiated a major renewal of the museum’s digital and physical research infrastructure adapted to collaborative research with Indigenous peoples. She is the author of Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Arts from the Northeast, 1700–1900; Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums; and Native North American Art, with Janet Catherine Berlo. With Nicholas Thomas she organised the Multiple Modernisms project to address Indigenous modernisms in a global comparative framework, co-editing its first publication, Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism with Elizabeth Harney, and its second, Mediating Modernisms: Indigenous Artists, Modernist Mediators, Global Networks, with Norman Vorano. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the American Anthropological Society and the Universities Art Association of Canada.