Becoming Hummingbirds: Cultural Heritage, Climate Action and an Indigenous Perspective

This guest blog from Alexandra P. Alberda, our Curator of Indigenous Perspectives, shares the story of Totem LATAMAT which you may have encountered in Manchester back in October. Throughout its journey, this beautiful and skilfully crafted object has not, however, been displayed inside behind glass. Neither has it been cordoned off or kept out of reach; rather, it has stood outside, fully exposed – to the weather, to curious hands, and to whatever else may be living in or passing through each place it has temporarily been installed. In this post, Alexandra reflects on Totem LATAMAT’s journey to Dumfries, explaining how the story does not end here: by returning the Totem to the Earth, it will slowly become part of its new home. In letting the Totem go – in accepting the physical changes that will transform it over time as the natural processes of decay and decomposition take hold – we are challenged to reflect on our own actions. While museums have traditionally practiced ‘care’ through the preservation and protection of physical things – preferably intact and stable (as explored in an earlier blog), in what follows, it becomes clear that the messages and meanings of things don’t necessarily rely on their physical presence and that change and absence may be just as powerful.

Woden totem in a paved area in front of Manchester Museum
Totem LATAMAT at Manchester Museum

You may recall a few weeks ago when Totem LATAMAT visited Manchester on the way across the UK to CoP26. You may have even got to take your own picture with it during the Corridor of Light festival. Totem LATAMAT was created by Totonac nation artist Jun Tiburcio. The Totem itself was commissioned through Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival and we were just one stop on its journey across the UK (as described here).

Installation of Totem LATAMAT across from Manchester Museum during the Corridor of Light festival. Video by Anna Pickard

Two weekends ago, Totem LATAMAT was ceremoniously returned to the Earth on the grounds of The Crichton in Dumfries, Scotland. The night before the ceremony I joined the other speakers to reflect on the journey of Totem LATAMAT, Indigenous perspectives, and CoP26; we wondered about our different journeys forward as Hummingbirds (Messengers which we inherited from the Hummingbirds on the Totem we encountered) in taking forward the message and taking action.

Totem LATAMAT’s ceremonial return to the Earth (you can spot me helping to pull it down – I am the person with the orange hat on pulling the ropes). Video by Stephen Peake

Undeniably, when Border Crossings’ Michael Walling first approached me to introduce the concept for Totem LATAMAT late winter/early spring 2021, I was most drawn to the idea for its return. From inception, Totem LATAMAT was going to be returned to the Earth (though at one point it was considered to be returned via the water). It felt respectful and accountable.

The Totem will become a part of the lawn at The Crichton more and more as it decomposes and is a part of an area that they plan to rewild with flowers come this spring. It will not be brought back to a standing position or made into a monument with extensive plaques. Instead, it already is becoming home to wasps in the area as you can see from the image below.

Three wasps wander across a carved wooden face and fabric decoration
Close up of Totem LATAMAT after it was returned. Can you spot all three wasps?

Carved from Cedar, a durable wood, it will take many years to decompose to a point where it might be hard to recognise. Until that distant year at least 30 years in the future, locals and visitors will be able to come and spend time with Totem LATAMAT, touch it, sit next to it, and see how the decomposition is unfolding.

Wooden Totem lays flat on a lawn with trees in the background
The Crichton lawn, Dumfries, Scotland.

I remain very excited that the Totem was and never intended to be an art object that sat protected from interacting with the Earth. Over the next years it will become a home, food, support and a curiosity for all life in the area, not just the wasps or us. It makes me contemplate the actions I will be taking as a hummingbird that has heard the message it has carried from Jun and the Totonac people.

How do the climate actions we take, personally and in the cultural heritage sector, take into account different ways of being in the world and planning of projects? How do we think of all our actions as being decided through climate and multiculturalism? Who do we need to bring this message to?

I think the strongest message that remains with me from this encounter, has been about the materials, past, present, and future, that I have been a part of making in order to promote climate and environmental action. Could I have buried them in the Earth? Could they have been made, lived, and returned through acts of ceremony? I think the best encounters are the ones that keep you questioning yourself about how you might do better.

Winged figure with a hat composed of colourful hummingbird heads, carved of wood and laid flat on the ground
Detail of Hummingbirds at the top of Totem LATAMAT.

Totem LATAMAT is one contact point for those interested in understanding Indigenous perspectives on climate action and lived experiences of climate change/burning. For each story and storyteller I encounter, virtual or in-person, I am left with a sense of curiosity to learn more about how Indigenous peoples all over the world are making spaces for their own cultural practices and multicultural collaborations (like the Totem) to be accountable to future generations and multispecies neighbours.

Totem LATAMAT’s return to the Earth gave closure to its journey from the forest in Mexico across the UK to CoP26 in Glasgow and finally to The Crichton in Dumfries, Scotland, but not its message and call to action. These remain with us to take forward as Hummingbirds.

Reflection by Alexandra P. Alberda, Curator of Indigenous Perspectives.

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