Student Activism and Spotlighting MAA’s First Indigenous Curator

12 minute read

Please note that archival MAA records, and some external sources, contain a historic term for Sámi people that is considered derogatory. The term is only present in images of MAA catalogue cards, and is not repeated in the article.

A collection of objects displayed behind a glass case.

Figure 1. A black and white photograph of the Sámi display curated by Mikel Utsi. Cambridge. 1970s. Photographed by Len Morley. MAA P.109431.MUS.

This photo represents one of the most important moments in MAA’s history. It shows the work of the earliest Indigenous curator in Cambridge, if not the UK: a display of the Sámi collections, made in 1947, that remained on display until 1986. It also changed the trajectory of my time as a student. 

The photo has been on display since 2010, yet you, like me, may not have noticed it before 2020. The photo is quite small, and hard to make out, at the back of one of the Sámi displays. Lockdown was taken as an opportunity to relabel these displays, imbuing a new focus on the photo and the man behind the curation, Mikel Utsi.

A portrait of a man wearing a hat and a fleece. He is looking towards the camera.

Figure 2. Black and White photograph of Mikel Utsi. Vájssáluokta (Vaisaluokta), Sweden. 1934. Photographed by Ethel Lindgren. N.22465.LIN.

To me, Mikel’s story serves as a reminder that decolonisation is not just an act of deconstruction, it is also restoration: of stories, lives, and knowledge once seen as less pivotal, less powerful, less worthy of conservation. I feel privileged to have taken part in one such restoration effort, shedding light on the invaluable work of an Indigenous man dedicated to representing his community.

Who are the Sámi/Sami/Saami?

Before I get into how I ended up researching Mikel Utsi, and how that ties to student activism, it is worth introducing his community.

A flag made of red, blue, green, and yellow colours. In the centre is a circle, half in blue and half in red.

Figure 1. Sámi Flag. Designed by Astrid Båhl in 1986. Source: Sámiráđđi (Saami Council)

The Sámi are an Indigenous group, whose homeland, Sápmi, spans across the modern day borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Their histories in these countries mirror that of many other colonised Indigenous groups – forcible conversion to Christianity, racist eugenicist ‘science’, exploitation of their land, and consequent loss of land rights.

A map showing Sapmi.

Figure 2. Map showing Sápmi and the distribution of surviving Sámi languages. Source: Language distribution based on misha_bb, and Lehtola and Ojala. Scandinavia outline from d-maps.

Mikel Utsi too was part of a North Sámi community in the Lule Sámi region around  Jåhkåmåhkke/Dálvvadis (Jokkmokk), displaced from their more northerly home of Gárasavvon (Karesuando). The ability of nomadic Sámi reindeer herders to follow their herds across borders was long subject to the whims of national governments, and successive restrictions made large numbers of herds unsustainable – some Sámi families moved willingly, others were forced southward by the Swedish government.

A zoomed-in map of Sapmi with regions identified in a list on the left.

Figure 3. Close-up of Sápmi, with key locations marked. Sámi place names are in two languages – Gárasavvon, Vájssáluokta, and Dálvvadis are North Sámi, whilst Bårjås and Jåhkåmåhkke are Lule Sámi. Source: Based on misha_bb, and Lehtola and Ojala. Scandinavia outline from d-maps.

In the modern era, Sámi organisations and activist movements have long considered self-determination over heritage as a key goal, and have campaigned for the return of human remains and sacred objects to Sápmi and Sámi-led heritage institutions. 

Commitment to Change

From the outset, it is important to note that campaigning by Black students around heritage long preceded the flashpoint of 2020 that I discuss below – though repatriated in 2021, the return of the Okukor, the Benin Bronze at Jesus College, Cambridge was spearheaded by Black students in 2016

My story with these collections began in 2020, for the same reason that many museums began to be more public with their self-reflexive work – the Black Lives Matter protests of that summer. 

The toppling of the statue of slave-owner Edward Colston at a BLM protest in Bristol  inextricably bound anti-blackness, contemporary racism, and racial justice in the UK with heritage and the need to decolonise our colonial collections and commemorations. 

A bronze statue of a man is placed flat on the ground. It has been covered with red and orange paint.

Figure 5. Statue of Edward Colston on display after being torn down. M Shed, Bristol. June 2021. Source: Adrian Boliston, CC BY 2.0.

The University of Cambridge Museums consortium released two statements regarding their Commitment to Change in June and July. Like many of Britain’s museums, decolonial work had been conducted quietly before 2020, with much of the difficult work of interrogating collections steeped in violence driven by the BIPOC staff of institutions and students (for example, three PhD students led MAA’s Untold Histories Toursin 2018-19).

A large group of people surround a young woman in a blue t-shirt. Behind this woman is a statue of a Hindu Goddess, and beside her are several cases containing objects.

Figure 6. Akshyeta Suryanarayan delivering an Untold Histories Tour. MAA, Cambridge. 2018. Source: University of Cambridge Museums Consortium Blog.

The first Commitment to Change served as a spark for a group of History of Art students, who in turn recruited archaeologists – they didn’t know much about MAA, but had a sneaking suspicion that was where the most contentious collections could be found. Our eventual open letter brought us opportunities to work with the University’s museums in several ways. But my research for the repatriation section of the letter is what led me to the Sámi collections.

Lule Sámi Goabddá

Nestled among Google results for ‘Cambridge repatriation’, was a forum post. It was third-hand information – something the poster’s mother had been sent by her drum-making teacher. But what it said was true – a Lule Sámi goabdes (Lule Sámi term for drum), a sacred religious object used by a Lule Sámi noajdde (shaman), at MAA had returned to Sweden. From 1998 to 2008, this goabdes, owned by Trinity College, was displayed at Ájtte, the Sámi museum of Sweden, initially on a five-year loan, extended by another five, returning to Cambridge when this expired.

Goabddá were never taken willingly. MAA is the custodian of two.

Two divination drums with painted designs on the skin membrane and openwork carving on the base.

Figure 7. The two goabddá (drums) at MAA. The goabdes owned by Trinity College is on the left. Sápmi. 18th-19th Century. MAA D 1914.88 A and 1887.75.3.

The story of the goabdes owned by Trinity College, its companion, and their journeys are complex; too complex to unravel here, twisted in wider webs of ownership, university organisation, and Indigenous rights. They are one point in a wider landscape of injustice – of the 70 known surviving drums, a handful have been returned to Sápmi. The first international repatriation, of a North Sámi goavddit (North Sámi term for drum) whose owner, Poala-Ánde (also known as Anders Poulsen), was murdered for ‘witchcraft’, was only returned  from the Danish Royal Collections to Kárásjohka (Karasjok), Norway in 2022

Mikel Utsi and Ethel Lindgren

These two threads intertwined when I, alongside one of the History of Art students, Rosalind Philips-Solomon, decided to research the drums. We began by trying to organise interviews with various stakeholders in the UK and Sweden. 

During this, we learned that some felt the difficult history and emotions surrounding the drums. The need for MAA to incorporate them in display overshadowed the truly unique and beautiful story that MAA could and should tell. A love story, one still remembered in Jåhkåmåhkke/Dálvvadis (Jokkmokk), where the Ájtte resides. I had to find out more. 

Ethel Lindgren and Mikel Utsi met during Ethel’s fieldwork in 1934. Ethel (1905-1988) was a Swedish-American anthropologist, who had worked extensively with Evenki and Oroqen reindeer-herding communities in East Asia. Mikel (1908-1979) was a craftsman and restaurateur, whose family founded the summer village of Vájssáluokta (Vaisaluokta). 

We know that Mikel played an active part in Ethel’s collecting process – for example, in 1937, when Ethel purchased a repurposed mielkki gákka (milk barrel) from Nils Päiviö, Mikel retrieved the lid and replaced the handle with reindeer skin, a more traditional material. Ethel’s notes also document his relations to others in his community, amusingly noting that, when Nils Nilsson Omma was considering selling a unna giissá (little box) to Ethel, Nils concluded only Mikel could make a replacement, but he was too ‘lazy and [would say it is] a lot of work for little money’! 

A cylindrical wooden barrel bound with wooden struts.

Figure 10. A mielki gágga (milk barrel), later reused to hold shoe grease. Owned by Nils Päiviö, handle added by Mikel Utsi. Near Vájssáluokta (Vaisaluokta), Sápmi. c. 1920. MAA 1937.851.

Though WWII would pause Ethel’s fieldwork and separate them, Lindgren and Utsi reunited, and married in 1947. That year they spent the summer at MAA, writing and revising catalogue cards, and Mikel curated the Sámi display. They returned in 1948 to label the Sámi display. This work would become the focus of my undergraduate dissertation.

Curation

Returning to the photo with which this post began. It was made in the 1970s by staff member Len Morley. We can’t be certain that nothing changed between 1948 and then, but current curators think it is unlikely. The objects appear to have remained on public display until the gallery closed in 1986, replaced by the new Anthropology gallery and display in 1990. 

That means that not only did an Indigenous man curate his own community’s heritage as early as the 1940s, but also that his curation remained largely unaltered for 39 years.

What freedom did he have to curate? Was he limited by museum convention? What did he choose to do within those constraints?

Ethel’s Role: Recording Collection and Curation

Thankfully, Ethel made great efforts to provide credit to all Indigenous people with whom she worked. Her acquisition notes contrast that of so many other anthropologists – owners of the objects that she acquired had names, lives, and opinions on how the objects should look. It means that when it comes to Mikel’s work in MAA, we can see just how many objects he touched, whether by providing knowledge, selecting them for curation, or physically altering them. And it also means we can be fairly certain that the Sámi display was Mikel’s sole creation; when Ethel discusses a potential curation of the Evenki/Oroqen case, she explicitly discusses it as something that she would do with Mikel.

A handwritten letter.

Figure 11. One of the letters Ethel sent to an MAA curator, Bushnell. In it, she is thanking him for photographing the Karesuando Sámi Case, and saying that she and Mikel plan to curate the Evenki/Oroqen case (referred to by the outdated term ‘Tungus’). Cambridge. 1947. MAA Archives: Correspondence file 1947.

As the husband of a respected, white anthropologist, Mikel likely had complete access to the collections and relative freedom to curate. The uncatalogued objects he found with Ethel (example below) is testament to the time and care that both of them had for the collection. After all, these were objects Ethel had purchased, and objects from Mikel’s community that had lived as museum artefacts for barely a decade. I imagine they had a much more intimate, personable relationship with these objects that a curator could only dream of today.

A collage of two images. On the left is an image of a selection of museum catalogue cards. On the right is an image of a small, yellow-brown coloured spoon.

Figures 12 and 13. Left – Photo of a catalogue card written by Mikel and Ethel, for a bastii (spoon) they found in the collection. Mikel confirms it is in the Gárasavvon (Karesuando) Sámi style. Cambridge. 1947.  Right – The baste (spoon) described by the catalogue card. Gárasavvon, Sápmi. 1915. MAA Z 11369

Curatorial Limits

The biggest limit to Mikel’s curatorial freedom was likely the conventional museum format of the early 20th century. The size of the case is one aspect – Mikel seems to have tried to fit as many objects as he could! Nevertheless, we see his creative ways of using the height of the case, hanging some objects from a branch and others on the gerresis (pulka/sled). What would he have done if he had the same space the Sámi collections have today?

A dark brown coloured wooden sled.

Figure 14. The geres (pulka/sled), seen on the right side of the display. Bårjås (Porjus), Sápmi. Pre-1939. MAA 1939.569.

The constraint of labelling practices is also apparent. The labels that are legible in the photo, or have been rediscovered during the MAA Stores Move Project, suggest that labels merely named the object in English and gave its accession number. From Mikel’s corrections and additions to catalogue cards, however, it is clear that he and Ethel cared about attributing objects to specific people or communities and documenting their correct usage. Mikel also corrected several of Ethel’s transcriptions of Sámi terminology. Would he have chosen to display Sámi names, community attributions, community stories?

A selection of museum labels.

Figure 15. A collection of rediscovered labels from the Karesuando Sámi Case. Cambridge. 1948. MAA 1930.628, Z 113721938.532.1-2, 1938.542 A B C D E, 1938.974.

Objects Altered: Mikel’s Curatorial Process

Before the days of rigorous conservation standards, Mikel was able to alter several objects in the collections. Perhaps most touching is his mother’s firkkal báddi (apron belt), which he partially unthreaded to attach it to a much older gođđosii (loom) in the collection, to show how it was used. Did he feel like he could only deconstruct his mother’s work to showcase the craft process? Or did he choose it to make his mother’s work more visible?

An red coloured apron belt with zig-zag patterns attached to a loom (right image) and on display in a museum glass case (left and centre images).

Figures 16, 17, and 18. Left – The gođus and firkkal báddi in the current Sámi display. Cambridge. 2010. Source: Author’s Photo. Centre – The gođus and firkkal báddi in Mikel’s display. Cambridge. 1947-48. Photographed by Len Morley in the 1970s. MAA P.109431.MUS. Right – Photograph of the gođđosa (loom) and firkala bátte (apron belt). Gođus: Sápmi. 19th Century. Firkkal báddi: Vájssáluokta (Vaisaluokta). c. 1937. MAA Z 11367 A and 1937.860

He also cut a bohcconáhki (reindeer skin) in half, to decorate the case. Was this to highlight the importance of reindeer and reindeer-herding in his community? We know that reindeer were particularly important to him and he is most well known for reintroducing reindeer to Scotland with Ethel.

A collage of two images. On the top is an image of some reindeer skin. On the bottom is an image of that reindeer skin on display in a museum glass case.

Figures 19 and 20. Top – Bohcconáhkki, the two pieces lined up together at the diagonal cut line. Jåhkåmåhkke/Dálvvadis (Jokkmokk). 1946. MAA 1947.402 A and B. Bottom – The bohcconáhkki in Mikel’s display. Cambridge. 1947-48. Photographed by Len Morley in the 1970s. MAA P.109431.MUS.

One alteration continues the lives of objects as they would have been if they had remained in Sámi hands – two vuoddagat (shoe bands) became moth-bitten during the war, and Mikel reused them to attach objects to the gerresii (pulka/sled) in the display, stating on the catalogue card:

‘[Sámi] use worn, or moth-eaten, shoe-bands for (1) tying cloth-covers on the tent framework; for (2) binding the bedding in a cradle; or for (3) binding the packing in a polka (sled). I have therefore sewn these pieces together and used them for tying the knapsack into the exhibited sled.’

This is the only label where Mikel speaks in the first person. As he said in reference to an avvái (belt) reused before acquisition, ‘one uses such scraps.’

Mikel’s curation is another part of the history of Sámi objects, and they have been indelibly changed by him. Their lives and histories as museum objects have continued since Mikel. But in many ways, traces of his curation are visible: his choices, his mother’s firkkal báddi showing weaving in progress, the gietkka (cradle) and the photo of Inga and Siri Tomma side by side.

A collage of two images. On the left is a black and white image of a cradle. On the right is an image of the same cradle. Its colours are now visible. It is made of a light yellow fabric, with blue and red textiles woven in. Beside the cradle is a portrait of a mother and child. Behind the cradle is a photograph of a museum display.

Figures 21 and 22.  Left – Close-up of Mikel’s display. The gietkka is next to the photo of Inga Tomma holding her daughter Siri in it. Cambridge. 1947-48. Photographed by Len Morley in the 1970s. MAA P.109431.MUS. Right – Close-up of the current Sámi display. The gietkka and photo continue to be displayed together, and the photo of Mikel’s curation can also be seen behind them! Cambridge. 2010. Source: Author’s Photo.

So, What Next?

There is still more to say about Mikel, Ethel, and the Sámi collections in Cambridge. This post doesn’t even mention the huge contributions Mikel and Ethel made to the Scott Polar Research Institute and its museum! I only recently learned that they may have co-curated the Evenki/Oroqen case at MAA, which raises so many interesting questions about how an Indigenous man and a white anthropologist may approach curating the heritage of a different Indigenous group. 

I believe my research on Mikel and the Sámi collections represents another potential of student decolonial heritage work. This work not only challenges what seems unjust, but also foregrounds the impact of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour, and recognises their legacies within complex colonial histories. 

Indeed, Rosalind and I co-founded Decolonise Cambridge Museums (DCM) whilst we were students as a space for students who want to unearth these legacies in museum collections across Cambridge. DCM’s new iteration has done just that, creating a podcast about the Fitzwilliam Museum (What Fitz In?), and collaborating with science students seeking to address colonial histories of the collections at the Whipple and the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge.

The Power of Digital Collections

Due to the pandemic, and my high-risk status, almost all of this research was done remotely. As part of its Stores Move Project, MAA has digitised hundreds of catalogue cards, and professionally photographed countless objects, bringing them to life. It means that this kind of research and reconstruction has become easier than ever. My work was an act of collation and collection; the information was already there, scattered across letters in the archives, collections databases, and within the objects themselves. People in MAA and the Scott Polar Institute already knew fragments of Mikel and Ethel’s story. Mark Elliott, one of MAA’s current curators, was already beginning to redress Mikel’s lack of prominence in the display, and recognise Mikel’s trailblazing role as an Indigenous curator. 

It can be a daunting undertaking, but it is exciting to think that this kind of research can be done by anyone, almost anywhere in the world.

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