Professor Alison Brown

Professor Alison Brown

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Overview
Professor Alison Brown
Professor Alison Brown

Contact Details

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Biography

I returned to the University of Aberdeen in 2005, having previously studied history here as an undergraduate. Following my undergraduate degree, I did a postgraduate diploma in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. I followed this with a MPhil in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge University and a D.Phil. in Social Anthropology from Oxford University. Since 1998, I have carried out fieldwork on the Canadian Prairies, with Blackfoot, Plains Cree and Plains Ojibwe communities, on projects concerning representation, access and the revival of cultural histories using museum collections as a focus. More recently I have worked on fur trade material culture in Scottish museums and family homes as part of the Material Histories project developed by the Department of Anthropology.  In addition to creating a project website http://www.abdn.ac.uk/materialhistories, the project team curated an exhibition based on their research which was held at Marischal Museum in 2008. My current research projects are the Leverhulme Trust-funded 'Blackfoot Collections in UK Museums', and the AHRC-funded 'Narrative Objects: The Sakha Summer Festival and Cultural Revitalization'. In this latter project I am working with Tatiana Argounova-Low and colleagues at the British Museum and National Museum of the Arts, Yakutsk, Sakha Republic (Yakutiia) to explore the meanings of a carved mammoth ivory model of ysyakh, the Sakha summer festival.

I have held curatorial and research positions in a number of UK museums, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, and Glasgow Museums.  I am a Research Affiliate at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, a member of the Smithsonian Institution's Summer Institite in Museum Anthropology (SIMA) National Advisory Board, and in 2019 I will be a Faculty Fellow on the SIMA programme in Washington DC.

 

 

Research

Research Interests

My research addresses the ways in which artefacts, archival documents and images, can be used to think about colonialism and its legacies. This work explores cross-cultural readings of heritage materials, and seeks to develop culturally appropriate ways of researching, curating, archiving, accessing, and otherwise using museum and archival collections. Most of my fieldwork and museum-­based research has taken place in Western Canada and Northern Montana with the Blackfoot nations of Siksika, Piikani, Kainai and the Blackfeet. I have also undertaken fieldwork in Subarctic Canada and Northern Scotland in connection with histories of Scots and Indigenous peoples in the fur trade.

I am currently leading an AHRC-funded project with Dr. Tatiana Argounova-Low. 'Narrative Objects: The Sakha Summer Festival and Cultural Revitalization', involves a partnership with the University of Aberdeen, the British Museum, and the National Museum of the Fine Arts of the Sakha Republic (Yakutiia). Using a nineteenth century carved mammoth ivory model of ysyakh (the Sakha Summer Festival) as a focus, the project team will investigate the ways in which historic artefacts are tools for contemplating the past, remembering collective practices of ethnic identity, and for contributing to cultural revitalization processes, particularly in areas that have experienced political and ceremonial suppression.

Current Research

Narrative Objects: The Sakha Summer Festival and Cultural Revitalization

This AHRC-funded project will investigate the ways in which historic artefacts are tools for contemplating the past, for remembering collective practices of ethnic identity, and for contributing to cultural revitalization processes, particularly in areas that have experienced political and ceremonial suppression. The regional focus is the Sakha Republic (Yakutiia), Russian Federation, and the centrepiece of the project is a unique mammoth ivory model of ysyakh, the summer festival of the Sakha (Yakut) people, which has been in the collection of project partner, the British Museum (BM), since 1867. During the Soviet era, many Sakha cultural expressions, including ysyakh, were suppressed. Since the 1990s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, cultural revitalization and attempts to establish political autonomy have generated considerable interest in these expressions and in the intersection of their historic and contemporary forms. Accessing Sakha historic artefacts, now scattered in museums worldwide, is key to these processes. While considerable work has been done in North America to link museum collections with descendent communities, there is virtually no scholarship regarding such projects in Russia. This project will thus be a model for developing inter-cultural relations between museums in the Russian Federation and beyond, and will contribute to better understanding cultural movements in post-Soviet states more broadly.

Blackfoot Collections in UK Museums: Reviving Relationships Through Artefacts

Indigenous people continue to experience the effects of historical processes of colonialism, including loss of land, forced assimilation and subjugation of religious practices. The collection of artefacts was linked to these processes, but today heritage items are the focus of cultural revitalization efforts. This innovative network has brought together Blackfoot people from Canada and the US with UK museums in order to generate and exchange knowledge about Blackfoot artefacts. As few Blackfoot people have had the opportunity to research these historic collections, the network has enabled exploratory discussions about their future care and has developed a model for further culturally-engaged research.

Northern Colonialism: Historical Connections, Contemporary Lives

This programme is co-directed by Dr. Alison Brown and Dr. Nancy Wachowich and builds upon existing expertise in Anthropology, Archaeology and History, with support from the Library, Special Collections and Museums, to foster path-breaking research on the processes and impact of colonialism in the Circumpolar North.The programme it is structured around three themes:

  • Economies and Polities
  • Environments
  • Cultural Transformations

By drawing on archival, museum and other material culture sources, and undertaking ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork, affiliated researchers are considering the intersection of colonialism and contemporary social issues in order to generate impacts within and beyond the academy.

Material Histories: Social Relationships between Scots and Aboriginal Peoples in the Canadian Fur Trade, c1870-1930

This project, funded by the AHRC, uses collections in Scottish museums to explore the inter-connected family relationships of Scots fur-traders and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Beadwork bags, painted coats and other colourful items are the focus for archival research and oral history interviews in Scotland and Canada with descendents of fur-trader families. The research aims to show how artefacts from the past can be used to evoke knowledge and social memories of diaspora relationships, and how the stories told around them can create forms of history that extend beyond those in the written record so as to generate powerful resonances in the present.

'These shirts are our curriculum': artifacts, Blackfoot people and the retrieval of cultural knowledge

This AHRC-funded project brings together UK-based researchers with Blackfoot people in Alberta, Canada, and Montana, USA, to explore the cultural history and contemporary meanings of 5 Blackfoot men's shirts held in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Collected in 1841, the hide shirts are decorated with porcupine quillwork and beadwork; three, with human- and horse-hair fringes along the sleeves, are ritual garments. There are just two shirts of this age in Canadian museums, and Blackfoot people have had little access to them. However, some cultural knowledge relating to them has been retained, and elders wish to revive traditional practices associated with them. Blackfoot leaders have spoken of the shirts as important for youth and hope that learning about them will strengthen cultural identity. The project will make the shirts available to Blackfoot people and the wider public for the first time, and explore how historic artefacts can be used by indigenous communities to revive, share and transmit cultural knowledge, and how they serve to anchor social memory and in the construction of identity. Through the exhibition of these shirts at Glenbow and Galt Museums in Alberta, and through handling workshops for Blackfoot people, we hope to show how close examination of the shirts can allow for the retrieval, consolidation, and transmission of cultural knowledge embodied in such artefacts. In turn, we hope that the project will inform future museum practice.

Research Grants

2017         Canada-UK Foundation (£1000). Travel Award. Parfleche Bags in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: A Case of Digital Access

2014         AHRC Research Grant (£556,442). Narrative Objects: The Sakha Summer Festival and      Cultural Revitalization. 

2014         Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK. (£3080) for the Scarred/Sacred Water exhibition and film series. Outreach Grant.

2013          Leverhulme Trust (£50,731). Blackfoot Collections in UK Museums: Reviving Relations through Artefacts.

2013          Foundation for Canadian Studies in the UK (£615). Publication grant.

2013         Pasold Foundation (£600). Research Activity Grant.

2012          Carnegie Research Grant for the Universities of Scotland (£1700).  Narrative Objects: The Siberian Summer Festival and Sakha Cultural Revitalization

2009          AHRC Research Grant (£183,431). Co-Investigator for “These shirts are our curriculum”: artifacts, Blackfoot people and the retrieval of cultural knowledge. PI: Dr. Laura Peers, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

2009          Royal Society of Edinburgh Workshop Grant (£9000). To develop international workshop on repatriation and access to museum collections.

2007          British Academy Overseas Conference Grant (£400)

2004          British Academy Overseas Conference Grant (£598)

Further Info

External Responsibilities

External Assessor, MA in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, 2008-2012

AHRC Peer Review College, 2014 to date

Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, peer reviewer. 2014 to date

British Council Newton Fund, peer reviewer, 2016-2019

Admin Responsibilities

MLitt in Museum Studies Programme Director

Websites

Narrative Objects: The Sakha Summer Festival and Cultural Revitalization (2015-2017)

This AHRC funded project involves a partnership between the Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, the British Museum, and the National Arts Museum of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Russian Federation

http://www.abdn.ac.uk/ysyakh/

 

Kaahsinnooniksi Ao'toksisawooyawa/Our Ancestors Have Come to Visit. Reconnections with historic Blackfoot shirts (2009-2012)

This AHRC funded project is a collaboration between the Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, and the Blackfoot Nations of Siksika, Piikani, Kainai and Blackfeet.

http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/blackfootshirts/

 

Material Histories: Scots and Aboriginal People in the Canadian Fur Trade (2005-2007)

This AHRC funded project was developed by the Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, and included an exhibition at Marischal Museum in 2007.

http://www.abdn.ac.uk/materialhistories/

 

Northern Colonialism: Historical Connections, Contemporary Lives

This programme is funded by the University of Aberdeen's The North Research theme.

http://www.abdn.ac.uk/the-north/research/northern-colonialism/

Publications

Publications 

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