Working with Mr. Brownstone

It was nearly over. My time in London was wrapping up and my search for an internship began. The program: M.A. Public History, at The University of Western Ontario.

I sent an email to the Royal Ontario Museum, hoping to experience one of Canada’s great cultural institutions. No bites.

Two weeks later, I decided to cast off once again. I sent another introductory email. This time, just days later, my phone rang.

“Hi Nick, This is Arni Brownstone from the Royal Ontario Museum” I stood up and put my coffee cup down. We had a brief discussion which ended when Arni said, “I look forward to working with you”.

I was in. My second email seemed to have done the trick. Persistence paid off. In preparation, I looked into all of Arni’s published works to familiarize myself with his field of expertise.

Moving to Toronto, I stayed with James, a good buddy of mine who lived near the CN Tower. My work began: an unpaid internship in an expensive Canadian city. A new adventure.

Arni is an expert in the painted buffalo hides or “robes” of the indigenous peoples of the Plains, especially the Blackfoot. Since the 1970’s, he has been analyzing and recording the remaining known examples, consulting with indigenous community leaders to add to a body of knowledge about these remarkable artifacts.

There is continuity in many of these highly stylized robe paintings. Motifs repeat and evolve over time, varying by artist and tribal affiliation. Arni has reproduced many of the robe paintings by studying them in person, and tracing their outlines on large cellophane sheets. He tried to faithfully follow the brush strokes of the original artist and in doing so, reveals new details about these objects.

Painted robes were a way for warriors to display their prowess, and to account for their bravest deeds. This is why they are also called “War exploit robes”.

And so Arni and I sat in his office for three months, turning his decades of research into a digital document. By the end of my time with him, we had transferred all of the material he had collected in a large filing cabinet -each painted robe organized into a file with associated research material- into a computer. Arni hopes to be able to produce a survey book containing all of the known examples in existence.

It was one of the most unique educational experiences of my life, working closely with a ROM curator. I am even more grateful to have become Arni’s friend as a result of our work together.

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