Laura Peers was Curator for the Americas Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum between 1998 and 2019, as well as Professor of Museum Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Her research and teaching focuses on the meanings of historic material culture to indigenous communities today, and on changing relations between museums and indigenous communities.
In response to the desire by tribal members in North America to retrieve ancestral knowledge from historic artifacts to strengthen their cultural identity, I have facilitated projects to reconnect community members with their material heritage in UK collections. These projects have generated new knowledge about collections and about methodology in museum anthropology:
- Great Box project: Haida carvers Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw made an exact replica of a masterpiece Haida chest in the Museum's collections, and took the new box home to Haida Gwaii, to learn from the ancestral artist and inspire Haida artists today. In 2016, this partnership project won the Vice-Chancellor's Award for Public Engagement with Research.
- Blackfoot shirts project (Kaahsinooniksi Aotoksisaawooya/Our ancestors have come to visit: Reconnections with historic Blackfoot shirts): This project involved a loan of five 1830s Blackfoot shirts from the Pitt Rivers Museum to two museums in Alberta, Canada. While the shirts were in Canada, handling sessions were held with over 500 Blackfoot elders, ceremonialists, artists, teachers, and high school students, to facilitate the transmission of cultural knowledge across generations and to explore the role of handling in provoking memory and knowledge. Further information can be found in an article about the project, 'Ceremonies of Renewal'. This research was funded by AHRC and the Oxford University Fell Fund, was conducted with Alison Brown (University of Aberdeen) and Heather Richardson (Head of Conservation, Pitt Rivers Museum) from 2009 to 2011.
- Kainai visual repatriation project: Digitizing photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum collections taken in 1925 on the Blood Reserve, Alberta, and taking copies back to the community to explore the issues of heritage objects (and photographs) for First Nations peoples today. See A. Brown, L. Peers and members of the Kainai Nation, 'Pictures Bring Us Messages/Sinaakssiiksi Aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation, University of Toronto Press, 2006. This research was funded by the AHRC, and ran from 2001 to 2003.
Implementing aspects of new museology involving indigenous peoples
- Ethics of display and treatment of human remains within museum collections: This work has included consultation with the Red Lake (Ojibwe) Nation in Minnesota regarding hair samples in the Pitt Rivers Museum (see ‘Strands which refuse to be braided’, Journal of Material Culture, 2003), and participation as a member in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Human Remains Working Group (2001–3).
- Public history representation of Native Americans/First Nations at 'living history' sites in North America: for more information see L. Peers, Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions (AltaMira, 2007).
Research on historic artifacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum
Archival and comparative research on the specific trajectories of historic collections, and their shifting meanings across cultures and time, and issues in material culture theory.