Remote Viewing at National Museums Scotland

At the National Museum Scotland.
From Left: Alison Clark, Thomas Allison, Ian Dawson, Louisa Minkin, and Dan Potter at the National Museum Scotland Stores.

Blackfoot items held by National Museums Scotland (NMS) have never been visited by Blackfoot people. Prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, we were planning for a few members of our group to visit some of these items at the National Museums Collection Centre (NMCC) in Edinburgh as a part of our AHRC research networking project Concepts Have Teeth. Once it became clear that this visit wouldn’t be happening in the near future, a new research question emerged: how might we design a remote viewing experience to support the cultural revitalization for Indigenous communities when in-person access is not an option? We set about to stream a live video of the items at NMS to a gathering of Blackfoot Elders in Lethbridge.

We took some time selecting items from the NMS collection for the remote viewing in collaboration with Blackfoot people. The Concepts Have Teeth project is focussed on Blackfoot quillwork. Quillwork is a transferred knowledge that is rare among living Blackfoot knowledge keepers. With digital imaging processes, we hope to feature more items with quillwork on the Blackfoot Digital Library microsite to serve as a resource.

In preparation for the selection curatorial staff at NMS photographed items specially for the project and sent us images and catalogue entries for Blackfoot and ‘Plains’ material. We circulated these among Elders and a selection was made for the remote viewing through ongoing conversations over several months. We were uncertain as to when the stores would re-open for researchers and fixing dates was slippery as pandemic regulations across England and Scotland shifted, loosened and tightened.

In preparation for the viewing some items were taken off display from the National Museum of Scotland. These items passed through the Museum’s quarantine before being made available for viewing at a research space at NMCC with a good wifi connection. The other items were moved out of their storage location to the same research space at NMCC. We took direction from Elders on the moving of items from the store.

Whilst these moves were happening we worked on the technical side of the viewing. We tested out different platforms and technologies.  We remembered stories we had been told on an RL visit to Blackfoot territory about the Chickadees who can dart their eyes out to see from multiple perspectives. We were also influenced by the creative work that our students and collaborators were doing to maintain and develop art practices and education over the lockdown period: creatively using remote cameras to explore their artworks and thinking through strategies of performance to camera and the improvisatory staging and framing of an online event.

We came up with a scenario with a zoom feed for communication and a separate higher resolution stream running on a team member’s server accessed through a browser window. We used multiple smartphone cameras at NMCC to give our remote viewers a sense of the space we were working in as well as closer views of items.

Prior to the event at NMCC, we were made very welcome to test our set up in the University Museum stores in Aberdeen with two of our Blackfoot colleagues joining remotely. This was quite an intimate conversation over a small number of items. Blackfoot colleagues were able to demonstrate remotely how a stitch was made whilst we saw this in our feed next to the item itself. We were also able to make direct comparisons between items in response to conversation. We were able to mix a digital microscope feed into the conversation, though the magnification of the smartphone cameras was more than adequate in providing detail of beadwork and stitching. We spent time with the items with multiple eyes on them close up.  Looking inside of a pair of moccasins this way let us see that the sole of the moccasin was re-used. It was made from painted hide with designs reminiscent of a parfleche bag. 

Focus-stacked image: ABDUA 5605, University Museums Aberdeen

The session in Aberdeen helped us immensely in setting up our Edinburgh visit. Time-zones and museum stores opening hours meant we had a two hour window for the viewing in Edinburgh and so we were especially attentive to the coordination and choreography of movement and care of items through the process. Team members working with the items in the space joined the session with their smartphones and earphones in order to hear directions, questions and comments from Elders remotely. Elders came together at the University of Lethbridge Penny Building in downtown Lethbridge where the team had set up several large screens and a conference mic with enough space for social distancing. Other project members joined remotely. We began with a prayer. Over the session we surveyed 24 items, some passed over quickly and some where we lingered with camera work to focus upon details as directed by Elders. Looking closely at a horse crupper revealed a pair of Levi jeans had been repurposed on the underside of the item, giving it weight and supporting the intricate beadwork on the other side. There was sometimes lag on the high-res feed, which gave a sense of tempo in the conversation and the awareness of time and distance. After the session closed there were parallel conversations among participants on both sides of the world, collecting thoughts and piecing together insights prompted by the viewing. We reconvened remotely on a second day with a smaller group who brought their thoughts to the table and looked again at some of the items in detail, hearing stories and insights as we did so. Looking again, over and over is an important part of the process to recognise. Each item opens up a world.