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The Double Meaning of Strawberries: Teaching the Multiple Meanings of Objects

Posted by Kate Zankowicz
26 September 2012 - 5:16pm

As a museum educator who is often called upon to teach using First Nations collections, I have grappled with expressing the different knowledges at play in the colonial space of a museum gallery. My personal goal as an educator in a museum is to frame my “lesson” (often an informal conversation) by interrogating the epistemological space of the museum itself: I never position the museum as the purported ‘expert’, the purveyor of absolute truth or as the hallowed ‘preserver’ of culture.

 Artifacts made by native artists are a great way to begin conversations about indigenous knowledges and experiences. A good case in point is the stunning beadwork pieces that were made by native women for the Victorian souvenir market. One of my favourite objects, shown above (part of Naomi Smith’s personal collection) is a pincushion adorned with small glass beads, made in the shape of a strawberry. The pincushions were filled with sand, to keep the needle sharp, and many of them were quite elaborate, reflecting the prime importance a sewing needle had for a woman living in the 1800s.  

The glass beads on the pincushions were themselves the result of colonial encounter, although native artists had beading traditions prior to the arrival of Europeans, often using horn, shell, bone and seed pods. The strawberry pincushion, an everyday domestic object with a complicated history can be a valuable object lesson: they are evidence of contact, how cultural aesthetics hybridize and borrow from each other and also serve to challenge notions of what counts as ‘authentic’. First Nations women made beadwork that they knew would appeal to a European audience, making objects that they knew would sell, as well as what appealed to them.  Strawberries were a common motif in European embroidery, but they were also associated with special traditions in First Nations culture. Many oral traditions retell the stories of the giant strawberries feasted on by the dead on their way to the afterlife. As the first fruits of the spring consumed after the winter, strawberries are an important part of Iroquoian and Algonkian ceremonies of yearly renewal.

These souvenirs  would also have been an important means of income for native women in the face of the loss of traditional lands, brought on by settlement and railway expansion. Catering to the Victorian tourist's desire for native ephemera would have constituted a means of survival in a changing world.

Being a museum educator means being able to inhabit the multivocality of objects: being able to position oneself within various historical standpoints. Deepening your sources of knowledge so that the multiple meanings of objects become clear to your students is an important pedagogical strategy in a museum, where what objects mean has traditionally meant what objects mean to collectors, not the makers of the objects themselves. Learning about objects with multiple meanings also opens up space to honour alternative histories and understandings of the past: teaching about the strawberry pincushion is a great way to begin that conversation.


What are some other examples of objects with multiple meanings that could be used to encourage multiple perspectives on the past in the classroom/museum?

Sources: Naomi Smith, First Nations artisan and educator (Neyaashiinigmiing Ontario). Photos from personal collection.

Ruth B. Philips “Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900” Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1998