Museum insights from the Textile Society of America Symposium, Vancouver

By Jane Groufsky, Project Curator History, Auckland War Memorial Museum | Tamaki Paenga Hira

The Textile Society of America (TSA) Symposium is a biennial event that attracts world experts in the field, and as such was an enticing prospect to a textile aficionado such as myself. Held in September this year in Vancouver, Canada, my attendance was in part made possible by a Professional Development Grant from National Services Te Paerangi and the support of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The theme of the symposium was “Deep Local to Pan Global”: defined as knowledge, beliefs, resources, and practices that are profoundly anchored in particular communities and places, which reflect not only the cultures of the original inhabitants but also those of later settlers.

Through my paper “A Local Motif; Use of kōwhaiwhai patterns in printed textiles”, I shared with members of the TSA how a non-textile traditional form has become a common motif in post-colonial New Zealand fashion and fabrics, using examples from the Auckland Museum collection and other national institutions as the basis for my research.

Jane Groufsky at Granville Island, Vancouver. Photo Dee Nicholls

Jane Groufsky at Granville Island, Vancouver. Photo Dee Nicholls

Spread across five days, the symposium was a packed schedule of workshops, tours, keynote speakers, and concurrent panel sessions. The opening event took place at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (MOA), where TSA staff and Debra Sparrow of the Musqueam First Nation welcomed us to their home. In addition to a surprise fashion show of garments by designers Yolonda Skelton and Wendy Van Riesen, this was an opportunity to explore the impressive MOA building, designed in 1976 and renovated in 2010.

Much of the gallery space at MOA is dedicated to their “Multiversity Galleries”, an integrated exhibition and research space where over 16,000 objects from local First Nations communities and international cultures are displayed via the method of “visible storage”. Dense assemblages of objects are presented as a visual catalogue, and yet more are accessible through drawers beneath the display cases.

Although only installed eight years ago, this kind of presentation does reflect a particular moment in museology, where a response to the criticism of “hiding away objects in storage” has been mitigated by a quantity-over-interpretation approach. Light-sensitive objects, such as the vast collection of woven cedar bark baskets in the Salish galleries, can never truly be considered “in storage” when displayed this way. They are, however, easily accessible for use in the several research rooms integrated into the gallery space, available for researchers, community members, and descendants.

Salish cedar baskets in open storage, Museum of Anthropology. Photo Jane Groufsky

It was also interesting to see MOA’s approach to integrating indigenous perspectives and acknowledging the legacy of colonial collecting practice – something that we are increasingly mindful of in New Zealand institutions. This is addressed head-on in an exhibition opened this year, “Culture at the Centre”, which showcases the work of indigenous-run cultural centres and museums in British Columbia.

Check out the “Culture at the Centre” exhibition

Wall text from “Culture at the Centre” at the Museum of Anthropology. Photo Jane Groufsky

This co-curated exhibition includes a text panel which gently introduces visitors to the concept of repatriation. The text recognises the research undertaken by First Nations cultural centres which enables the return of treasures to their source communities. It was refreshing to see an institution talk so openly about aspects of museum practice which may be unfamiliar to many visitors. The subject is made even more potent by Vancouver’s political situation, with the city council voting in 2014 to formally acknowledge that the city sits on unceded Aboriginal territory.

This theme was also present throughout the TSA symposium, starting with the keynote address from Northwest Coast weaver Meghann O’Brien from the community of Alert Bay, British Columbia. O’Brien shared how she had learned Kakwaka’wakw and Haida textile practices which had been lost to her family, and which she now uses to create intricate cedar bark baskets and pieces woven from the wool of mountain goats. Through reclaiming this knowledge, O’Brien has forged a deeper connection to both her whakapapa and her ancestral land from which she draws her materials.

Small woven works by Jaad Kuujus (known as Meghann O’Brien) on display at the Bill Reid Gallery, Vancouver. Photo Jane Groufsky

Although many of the papers presented at the symposium had a strong academic focus, I gravitated towards papers which showed alternative methods of research. A particular highlight in this area was a paper given by Tara Mayer of the Department of History, University of British Columbia. An expert on South Asian material culture, Mayer was approached by the Museum of Victoria to help describe a collection of objects brought to Vancouver by travellers in the 1930s. Mayer saw an opportunity to introduce her students to hands-on museum research.

In a seminar co-convened with Museum of Vancouver curator Dr Viviane Gosselin, students were invited into the museum store to select an individual object from the collection and conduct independent research, ultimately producing an in-depth catalogue record for the object. This project had several positive outcomes: it enriched the information held around the collection as a whole; it allowed a different kind of “expert voice” to describe the objects in the collection; and it provided a way for the students to engage with the museum collection in a more meaningful way than simple data entry.

Read more about the University of British Columbia’s hands on course “Objects of Encounter: Local and Global Histories of South Asia at the Museum of Vancouver”

The TSA symposium was my first experience of a major international, subject-based conference. I enjoyed building on my existing knowledge of international textile practices, but more importantly, the interdisciplinary nature of many of the papers introduced me to new ways of thinking which I can apply to my own work.

I would encourage any museum professional to consider a NSTP grant – it’s a valuable way of enabling opportunities for professional development beyond our shores.

Visit the Textile Society of America Symposium 2018 website

Find out more about the NSTP Professional Development Grant

Jane Groufsky is the Project Curator, History at Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Her research focusses on the history of printed textiles in New Zealand.