We The Humanities: Interview with Natasha Barrett, University of Leicester

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Today I’m joined by Natasha Barrett, a British researcher and cultural heritage expert currently studying for a doctorate at the University of Leicester.

Natasha tells me: 

I’m researching commercial colonial-era photographs (1860s-1914) of Māori (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) and their taonga/cultural treasures. Essentially I’m looking at the meaning of these photographs to Māori, and how they have been used over time both within and outside of museums. I’m also considering how Māori perspectives can inform the way these photographs are understood in museums. My approach treats photographs as three-dimensional objects. I pay close attention to their material qualities, such as the albums they are placed in, any writing on their surfaces. As well as, the sensorial or different ways people engage with photographs, inlcuding looking at, talking about and touching them.

You’ve returned to academia after a long time working in the cultural heritage sector; what’s it like returning to research and how have your experiences off-campus shaped what you do now?

A 14 year gap between by my MA (Museum Anthropology) and PhD (Museum Studies), apart from a short long distance archival course, is quite a while but it feels right. It has taken a bit of time and adjustment getting used to being a student again and the rhythms of research, which of course are much more self guided at this stage. The hiatus in between studying has given me life and work experiences, which are invaluable when undertaking a PhD. Living in Aotearoa/New Zealand and immersing myself in the bicultural society and the GLAM sector helped me decided what I wanted to focus my research on, given me my drive and essential background knowledge, and contacts to draw on.

Can you tell us about your previous cultural heritage work?

I was honoured to work at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as a Repatriation Researcher of Māori and Moriori (Rekohu/Chatham Islands) ancestral remains. Returning these ancestors home after so many years in collections around the world was a humbling and rewarding experience. Engaging with overseas museums was at times difficult but a good skill to learn and negotiations often resulted in the development of good relationships and the exchange of knowledge.

All of my roles (National Library of NZ, Waitangi Tribunal, Te Papa, Auckland Regional Council, Auckland Libraries) were in the government sector and were focused on with cultural heritage but they were distinctly different. What united them all was the institutional commitment to engagement with Māori and the right of iwi/tribes in the management of matters that relate to them. Including the return of their ancestors; written, visual and oral taonga, and sites of significance on the land and foreshore.

What do “the humanities” mean to you?

A really broad umbrella encapsulating a wide range of disciplines of study. It is probably a good term to use to describe my academic path, which has been and continues to be fully interdisciplinary, combining museum studies, social anthropology, photographic historiography and the visual arts.

What’s your favourite thing about what you do?

Getting to think about museums, Māori culture, and photography all day!

You’re an accomplished photographer in your own right too. How does your artistic practice with the camera relate to your research and your cultural heritage work?

I’ve been a passionate amateur photography since my late teens, through university and up to the present day, and this has given me an appreciation of the physical practice of taking photographs and their production in the darkroom. My research has a material and sensorial approach and therefore this learnt tacit knowledge is vital when trying to understand early analogue photographic practices and when analysing photographic objects from this time. My time working in the heritage department at Auckland Libraries gave me a good understanding of the commercial photographs from the period I’m studying. More generally my roles have developed my understanding of contextual and supporting sources of knowledge and collections in NZ and around the world. I am these type of resources in my research to help to build up photographic meaning and to trace collections and transmediated material shifts (e.g. from photographs to derivative forms, such as newspaper illustrations). My experience working with archival records and developing a cultural heritage database has been instrumental in the establishment of my own relational database, which I am using to track to collections and cycles of production, (re)distribution, (re)circulation, (re)appropriation and (re)use over time and space.

You’ve got a Joe Orton exhibition coming up – can you tell us more?

The University of Leicester Library holds the archival collection of Leicester born playwright Joe Orton. He is most well known for his play Entertaining Mr Sloane and the black humour of his writing style. In a few months time, we will be opening an exhibit in the library to showcase the library’s collection, Orton’s work and the vase his niece made to celebrate his life. We have been spoilt for choice with the archival material in the collection, which includes visual dairies, photographs, annotated original scripts and letters of complaint written by Orton under the guise of a number of different characters. We have tried to create a display that is eye catching and communicates Orton’s character – his creativity, passion for life and non-conformity.

Any other projects coming up that you’d like people to know about?

I’m presenting in April at the School of Museum Studies 50th Anniversary Conference: The Museum in the Global Contemporary: Debating the Museum of Now. There are some really influential global speakers lined up who are covering a range of topics from the politics of representation in museums, including LGBT communities and indigenous museologies. I will be examining whether photographs can be used to facilitate museological ‘contact zones’ (Clifford, 1999). My paper will discuss the roles photographs can play in exhibitions and asks whether they can contribute towards engendering meaningful exchanges and cultural understanding of indigenous colonised peoples. I will be using the Māori display in the British Museum’s Living and Dying exhibition as a case study.

Huge thanks to Natasha for speaking with me – to find out more about her work, visit Natasha’s profile on the AHRC Midlands Three Cities site.

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