The AIC “Giver”

May 20, 2022
Uluaq = Yup’ik woman’s semi-lunar knife (Uluak= two of these knives, Uluat=three or more knives). Dr Walkie Charles, my professor for Yup’ik language 101 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, shared with me that this knife is shaped like a tongue, and we should be careful what we say because words can cut. When you see me wearing these earrings, I chose them because I was trying hard to speak carefully.

There were about ten of us around the table at the hotel bar at the 2022 AIC (American Institute for Conservation) conference on the last night. Table of empty glasses, plates with crumbs. One woman grabs the combined tab, as she’d arranged with our server hours ago. And so it begins: the flurry of offering and insisting on helping with the tab…volley, parry, dodge. A young woman keeps putting in her card:

“But I don’t have cash” she protests.

“Buy me a drink next time I see you!” responds the woman with the plastic folder holding the bill.

“But I ordered food too!”

Another woman, a well-established veteran, springs up after her card is rebuffed, “No! I’m going to get cash for you!” she insists, and rushes off to fetch the money.

Those with cash are busily making change for each other.

I catch a glimpse, wow…the number $438 jumps out from the bill. As the kerfuffle dies down and the tab is finally paid, I make an offhand comment to this woman (who I have never met), :”Wow, you’re the giver, aren’t you?”

Back up a second. This phrase/concept has a lot of meaning to me. I’ve been pondering this idea for years. I first heard it at a backyard BBQ in Fairbanks, Alaska. I had just started a PhD in anthropology, and I was troubled by the idea that animals would “give themselves” to worthy hunters who lived according to cultural values…values known to the animals. I was increasingly viewing the world in terms of reciprocal relationships, or even “pay it forward” relationships, but what was the reciprocity in the hunting relationship? What’s in it for the animal? I asked this casually of University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Mike Koskey at this BBQ…and he barely paused before responding, “Well, they’re the givers, aren’t they?” and took a sip of his drink. That was his whole answer to me, and left me thinking: what does it mean to be a “giver”? That was ten years ago, and I am still pondering it. The more I thought about it, the more the idea became a motivating value in my life.

Years later, doing fieldwork in Scammon Bay, I met Harley Sundown: nukalpiaq (hunter), school vice principal , and coach. I was working on research about processing gut (intestine), wondering not only why it was no longer a material people used, but why some people still made it even if they didn’t use it. Sundown posited, “What kind of a person are you?” …a person who keeps active? Someone who processes their catch right way? Someone who doesn’t waste? You show what kind of person you are by your actions. I started to connect the dots…givers show by their actions what kind of people they are. And if you are in a position to be a giver, it means you have something of value to give. And that you want to give it for the benefit of others.

All of us at that AIC conference hotel table last night, as conservators and professionals, want to be “givers”. We want to be generous and do idealistic good in the world…to be agents of positive change through our work. But what does it mean to be a “giver”? In my pondering about this, my mind often jumps to a short little book with a big impact: “The Gift” written by Marcel Mauss more than 100 years ago. The idea of the gift is simple…in a network of relationships there are obligations to give, obligations to receive, and obligations to reciprocate gifts. Both the magnitude of the gift and the time elapsed between these 3 obligations are crucial and carefully judged by others. Even subconsciously. The gift is always circulating through the network of relationships, animated by a spirit/force of the gift called the “hau” and there is an imbalance in who owes who a gift that keeps the relationship alive. The debt keeps the connection. This description is oversimplified…Marcel Mauss oversimplified too, which is why most of the book is example after example from indigenous cultures and ancient societies of this concept in practice. (“hau” is actually a Maori word). If I understand right, if the “obligation” is fulfilled, the relationship could end. It risks turning an open-ended gifting relationship into a terminal capitalistic transaction.

These ideas about “being a giver” and “what kind of a person are you?” actively guide me in my conservation practice and in my personal life. Do I want power? Do I want to feel good about myself? Are we motivated by urges we can be proud of? What about the afterlife? Where do people find meaning? Justice? Healing?

So I was seeing this hotel table of conservators, who I view as all desiring to be generous “givers”, unable to tolerate the idea they would not have fully paid their tab and they would be in debt to this woman holding the bar bill in the little plastic folder. She was even saying aloud, “You can catch it the NEXT TIME” or “you can buy me a drink the next time you see me”. She wasn’t just generous in trying to pick up the tab in broad strokes without counting nickels, but also generous in leading this ritual of coordinating the payments and protestations of the whole group. So as she turned in her credit card, I was looking to acknowledge her effort, and I blurted out, “Wow, you’re the giver, aren’t you?”

Here’s what I am pondering now…I did not know this woman, but until recently she was the point person for a major granting organization. BIG funding source for the conservation field. She didn’t know the context of my offhand comment, but it seemed to stimulate/trigger a whole variety of thoughts for her. Now today, sitting in the airport the next morning, I am pondering what it means for big money funders and granting agencies to be givers and what motivates them. When the gift is literally money, and we want it to circulate and help sustain a network of relationships, what does that mean?

2020 Review: The Good Things

January 1, 2021

1. PhD In Anthropology

In December I finished the PhD in anthropology I began in the fall of 2012. The pandemic prevented me from traveling back to Yup’ik villages in Western Alaska this year to learn from cultural experts, but my previous fieldwork in both villages and museums was enough for the academic requirements of a PhD. Of course, there is still so much research to be done! The project is not over, just this formal academic part. I’m planning a post soon reflecting on this PhD process, as many mid-career people I chat with are interested in pursuing doctorate degrees. Losing my husband to cancer in 2018 caused the process to take longer, but ultimately I think it was worthwhile. I see the world from a new perspective, and it has already changed the way I do museum work. In particular, trying to learn from indigenous teachers in the way they choose to instruct has been a game changer for me.

Poster from Ellen's dissertation defense
This was the poster from my PhD dissertation defense in October 2020.

2. Alaskan Agents of Deterioration

The Alaska State Museum (ASM) has taken the opportunity to add content online, including a user-friendly guide to “Alaskan Agents of Deterioration” tailored to the care of collections here. Our museum has an outreach mandate to provide expertise and advice to museums and cultural centers statewide, and I also answer questions from the general public. The Agents of Deterioration is widely used in the museum field as a sort of checklist of preservation threats, in particular the version shared by the Canadian Conservation Institute. I love this framework, because it can be scaled up or scaled down depending on experience and expertise.

Poster of ten agents of deterioration for cultural heritage
Simple poster to help stewards of cultural heritage remember ten agents of deterioration that can threaten collections.

3. Alaskan Condition Reporting Guide

As part of the enhanced Alaska State Museum website, I developed a material-by-material guide for understanding the typical condition challenges faced by those who care for Alaskan material culture. Our museum has a mandate to provide outreach and expertise to museums and cultural centers statewide. This Alaskan Condition Reporting guide is an image-rich resource based on 20 years of working with Alaskan collections as well as common questions I have been asked about damage. This resource is a companion to the Alaskan Agents of Deterioration guide, and both invite questions from institutions and the general public about caring for collections.

detail of moth-damaged mittens
Detail image of mittens that have been attacked by moths. Mot of the fur has been devoured, and telltale white oval residues indicate where cocoons had been attached.

4. NYU Connections

My masters degree in art history and diploma in conservation came from New York University back in 2000. Living on the far side of the country has limited my involvement with my alma mater over the years. But in 2020, there were exciting connections! I was supposed to have NYU graduate conservation student Adrienne Gendron as an intern, but she chose to defer her internship until 2021 in hopes of experiencing the postponed Sealaska Heritage Institute’s “Celebration” cultural festival and the programming associated with the upcoming Alaska State Museum exhibition on Northwest Coast woven textile regalia. Still, she was able to collaborate from afar during pandemic with research into the feasibility of vivianite as a dye for wool, as well as scanning electron microscopy to compare wool samples from mountain goat, musk ox, and domestic sheep. NYU conservation alumna Amy Tjiong (who has been researching gut with me for more than a decade) introduced me to another NYU conservation alum, Soon Kai Poh, who has been working with the Bard Graduate Center (BGC). He was their Conservation as a Human Science Fellow. Our conversations led to a podcast for their “Fields of the Future” series. We discussed indigenous collaboration and the role of the conservator in networks of care. I was also fortunate to provide a guest lecture for Michele Marincola’s NYU course, Practical Problems of Preservation: the Conservation of Organic Decorative Objects. My lecture was “Organic Materials and Object Making in the Pacific Northwest and Arctic Region” with a focus on unusual protein materials found here such as like baleen, gut, fish skin, and walrus ivory. I was delighted to attend the virtual final student presentations for that course as well.

Detail of gut parka with embellishment
Detail of “winter-tanned” Siberian Yupik parka, Alaska State Museum collection II-A_4458, showing auklet beak and feather embellishments sewn into the seam.

5. Dye Experiments

The pandemic curtailed the meetings of the Chilkat Dye Working Group in 2020. Without being able to meet in person to share coffee and snacks in the classroom and study historic Chilkat robes together, members of the group did more work on their own. I did a lot of camping this summer, and was able to try out quite a few plants. Tweaking the gut pH was certainly an insight. Many of the plants gave more vivid colors with alkaline conditions. There is something special about just jumping in and trying things…learning from one’s mistakes and thrilling in happy accidents. The purely practical choices and challenges become more obvious. Dyeing is an art because the variety of variables is huge, making the mastery of dyeing with natural materials impressive indeed.

pots of natural dyes made of plants
Experimental dye pots with local plants from Juneau, Alaska.

6. Graduate Conservation Intern Steph Guidera

While following careful pandemic restrictions, Steph Guidera from the SUNY Buffalo graduate training program in conservation managed to join my bubble for several weeks during the summer and squeezed in an impressive amount of work. Her projects included getting an indigo dye bath going, trying to pull indigo back out of wool (as might have been done historically), testing a number of plant dyes, adhesive testing for gut, treatment protocols for flaking paint on wood oars, tanning fish skin, repairing model fish traps, and the feasibility of heat pump technology to improve sub-par Alaskan artifact storage situations.

Shows intern in conservation lab
Conservation intern Steph Guidera works with an indigo bath in the conservation lab of the Alaska State Museum. On the floor behind her, attempts to dye fish skin.

7. Site Visit to Sitka

A Rasmuson Foundation Collections Management Fund grant brought me and intern Steph Guidera to our other state museum, the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Curator Jackie Fernandez-Hamberg requested the repair of a group of broken model fish traps, treatments undertaken by our graduate conservation intern. Meanwhile, I developed a conservation assessment to help guide an upcoming gallery refurbishment to update the permanent exhibitions that were installed more than thirty years ago. We were also able to develop a risk mitigation plan to protect the collection during upcoming roof repairs. 

Conservator repairs a model fish trap
Conservation intern Steph Guidera repairs a model fish trap at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska.

8. Site Visit to Kodiak

Amanda Lancaster at the Alutiiq Museum secured a grant through the Rasmuson Foundation’s Collections Management Fund to bring me to Kodiak for consulting and workshops about Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This kind of on-site work is so valuable for the amount of training, informal assessment, and troubleshooting discussions they promote. I was able to connect with staff at both the Alutiiq Museum and the Kodiak Historical Museum on a wide variety of collections-related concerns beyond IPM, including collections storage strategies, condition reporting, assessment of loans and specific objects, and general encouragement that staff in small places particularly appreciate.

Spectacular tattoos on Alyssa Madrid in Kodiak
Spectacular and detailed kayak tattoos on artist and paddler Alyssa, who works at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak.

9. Coping with Pandemic 

While I was fortunate to be able to work in the museum building most of 2020, there were several months the facility was closed and I was teleworking. In order to keep an eye on things, a small team was assemble to take turns with wellness checks for the collection. The weather in Juneau was exceptionally wet this year, even for our temperate rainforest standards. One storm in particular had driving rain with high winds pushing water into the structure from crazy angles. Several leaks occurred, though none threatened collections.

Storm leak under the door.
Amber Glen calls facility staff to troubleshoot a leak from a big storm.

10. Kimball Theater Organ Committee

Before pandemic struck, the theater organ in our collection was tuned. The marvelous instrument was popular in the 1920s as an accompaniment to the silent films of the era. It was restored in 1970 and installed in a special chamber in the spacious atrium of the State Office Building in downtown Juneau. It has been played regularly on Fridays at noon, and is much-beloved in the community. Budgets don’t allow for the level of maintenance and tuning the instrument deserves, especially 50 years after the original restoration. We have finally established a committee through the Friends of the State Library, Museum, and Archives (FoSLAM) to help strategize care of the theater organ. Just as the committee was getting off the ground, pandemic set us back. I hope that in 2021, the excellent team we assembled can pick up where we left off and bring this instrument back to full glory with a long-plan for care and programming, perhaps even with a silent film for public viewing.

Organ opened
The console of the Kimball Theater Organ at the State Office Building in Juneau, opened for tuning and maintenance.

11. Paper Conservation with Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton

The Alaska State Museum bought a monumental work on paper by Haida artist Donald Varnell following a solo exhibition of his work at the museum. Varnell is better known for his large wood carvings, so the opportunity to acquire one of these unusual, emotionally-charged oversized works on paper was exciting indeed (thank you Rasmuson Art Acquisition Fund!) The work had been exhibited tacked up to timbers, and since it included intentional tears and irregular edges, we worried about its long term safety. Thankfully, we were able to hire paper conservator Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton to undertake the stabilization and support needed to frame the artwork. Our exhibit team of Jackie Manning and Aaron Elmore made a gorgeous custom frame, and it was on exhibit in our summer 2020 show, “Simply Big,” showcasing oversized artworks from the permanent collection. 

Conservator and exhibit designer discuss artwork
Paper conservator Jennifer Sexton McGlinchey discusses a mounting strategy for a large artwork on paper by Donald Varnell with exhibit designer Aaron Elmore, who would then make the custom frame.

Dye-ing at the Museum

July 19, 2019

On Saturday, June 29 the Chilkat Dye Working Group got together at the museum for some hands-on dye experiments. Here’s some images!

1 A dye dock

Looking at copper and ammonia dye in a jar on the loading dock of the Alaska State Museum. L to R: Deanna Lampe, Mary Ann Parke, Deb O’Gara, Lily Hope (holding jar), Kay Field Parker, and Liana Wallace.

1 A scour

Ecolana organic undyed merino wool tied in small hanks for testing, and ready to be scoured with Fels Naptha soap. Scouring removes dirt, oils, and contaminants from the wool and hopefully makes the dyeing more successful. I also had hanks that were not scoured for comparison.

1 A scoa soak

Here is Ecolana organic merino wool in small hanks soaking for an hour in distilled water before dyeing. One bowl is the scoured wool, the other is not scoured.

1 copper

On my back porch, the jar with the yellow liquid is urine with a piece of copper pipe in it. Urine as a chemical has a huge number of traditional uses…dye mordant, cleaning solution, aid in beer making and gunpowder production…google the word “lant” for a rabbit hole of fascination! Aged urine gets more alkaline, eventually having some properties of ammonia, but as you can see the jar on the right (containing ammonia and copper) is far more reactive than the urine on the left, which I don’t think is aged enough. Note the deep cobalt blue color.

2 copper

Here is a glass pitcher with my copper pipe and ammonia. After a while, there was a white residue, or precipitate, in the bottom of the container as well as some black staining on the inside of the glass near the top of the liquid. When I agitated the solution, it turned this milky blue.

3 copper kay

This is Kay Field Parker and her bottle of ammonia with a copper pipe that has been sitting on her porch for more than a year.

3 copper

Unlike many of the dyes we are using, the ammonia and copper solution is NOT heated (that would produce dangerous fumes). It is used cold. Yarn put in this solution turns a deep steely gray, only slightly blue.

5 copper gray

Copper is an important colorant on the Northwest Coast, and the blue greens are the dye color we are looking for. Obviously, this is not what happened to our wool yarn.

5 copper

On the left is Louet brand merino wool with no color, and then dipped in copper/ammonia. Lily holds some green Louet yarn and what happens when it is dipped in the copper/ammonia.

6 patty experimental

Patty Fiorella has been experimenting with local plants and the kinds of colors possible. Here she has some sweet gale.

7 patty nettle

These are nettles, but Patty felt they were not good quality and perhaps it is too late in the season. Using natural dyes means a lot of variables and the results are both art and science.

8 patty's setup

Here is Patty Fiorella’s dye bath setup, with enamelware pots on hot plates. Aluminum pots are avoided because they might impact the reaction. She boiled the plant material for an hour, strained it out with cheesecloth, let it cool, and put the yarn in to soak up the dye.

9 a wolf moss

Liana Wallace holds a bag of wolf moss (a kind of lichen) and discusses its use with Juneau-Douglas City Museum curator Niko Sanguinetti.

9 wolf moss changed

Lily Hope holds some dry wolf moss (top) to compare with the appearance when it has been boiled for an hour in urine. The colorant is now in the dye bath. Yes, there is a bit of an odor. That’s why we are outside!

10 wolf moss faded

Kay Field Parker shows us some wool yarn that has been dyed with wolf moss. The deeper yellow on the right has been in the dark for the past 18 years. The lighter, faded yarn is the same yarn, but has been exposed to daylight for a year.

11 A cook

Here are some steel pots on a pancake griddle. The plant material, distilled water, and yarn are all being brought to a boil and heated for an hour together. This is one option for dyeing, but the yarn will have plants bits in it.

11 B setup

Here are more tables with dye baths on burners during this dye session.

11 cow parship wolf moss

Here are two yellows we got this time…on the left is wolf moss (which is a little on the pale side, I have seen it a deeper yellow. Perhaps it was a weak dye bath this time?) On the right is a nice golden yellow made with cow parsnip blossoms in urine. Certainly there were a lot of traditional uses for cow parsnip, so I suspect this color doesn’t last or Chilkat weavers would have perhaps used it more?

12 loading dock

Another image of the scene on the loading dock.

14 labrador IMG_6890

Here are labrador tea leaves Mary Irvine gave me, gathered last year in Sitka. The dye bath smelled lovely, but the resulting color was not very exciting.

16 labrador boring

The labrador tea with just distilled water gave a weak beige yellow. Adding rusty nail water and nails gives a weak brown. We are looking into the idea of iron as a mordant, but I don’t think this looks so promising.

17 hemlocks

These were wool yarn samples Kay Field Parker provided from her experimentation with hemlock bark in 2018, and also hemlock bark overdyed with the copper and ammonia solution. These are pretty good dark colors!

18 hemlocks colors

A little blurry, but you can see where the nice brown of the hemlock bark dye got much darker in the bottom sample after she dipped it in copper/ammonia.

19 hemlock exhausted

Kay Field Parker gave me her hemlock dye bath from that 2018 wool dyeing she did, and I thought I’d see if it still worked. NOPE! I guess the dye bath was used up or “exhausted” as they say.

20 dry

Here’s some yarns drying in the conservation lab after the meeting. I’ve got a few small hanks left I can experiment with next time.

21 light fading

I hung examples of the cow parsnip, copper, and wolf moss in the window (both scoured and unscoured) and put the rest of the hanks in a dark drawer. After a few months exposure, we will see how much fading might happen.


2009: AIC, Elitism, and Blogs: Where is the Love?

June 12, 2019

You’d think you couldn’t lose something on the internet, but the blog post I did in 2009 for the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s blog no longer exists since they revamped their website. So here’s a draft, essentially the same thing but no pictures:

I go to the AIC annual meetings for one major reason: MORALE.  I get excited, I get inspired, and my batteries get recharged.  I go to a city I have never been to, agonize over attending talks tangentially related to my work or seeing museum exhibits I would otherwise never see.  I spend time in a nice hotel chatting with people I really like and get to call it work time and collect per diem.  I get to feel that I am part of a community.  I like seeing the whole range of personalities…the really well dressed paintings folks on one end and the grungier ethno folks on the other.  I like seeing the geeky nervousness of the grad students and try to reach out to them, remembering what it was like to be in their shoes and then feeling stupid when I realize they have more confidence than I did.  I like seeing old mentors and giving them a hug and feeling the thrill that maybe, just maybe they think of me as a colleague now and approve of my work.  Going to the talks is analagous to going to the movie theater when I could just rent on DVD.  Humans like to roam in packs, and I love hearing a buzz go through a room when a provocative comment is made, or the titters of disapproval, or the nodding of heads with a good point, and I am excited when people are brave enough to ask questions after the talk and the sport of seeing how the speaker performs under pressure.  Performance!  Have you seen Arlen Hingebotham give a talk?  Or Paul Messier?  Or the NMAI folks giving a tongue-in-cheek Martha Stewart spoof chocked full of great tips?

2.0 definitely has its place.  It can function in ways that AIC can’t or won’t.  AIC has a hard time responding in a timely manner on current events and 2.0 folks can be the front lines for those opportunites for PR for our profession.  I’m blogging for more personal reasons.  Not long ago I saw a woman at the mall parking lot trying to wedge a child’s trampoline into her small car.  I said, “Hey, it fits in my minivan…where do you live?  I’ll drive it home for ya.”  Sometimes you have the BE that nice stranger in order to have the community be the kind of place where you’re proud to live.  I want to put content on my blog of the kind that I’d like to find.  What if David Grattan had all his publications and notes and musings right there on the web?  Or Nancy Odegaard?  Or Tony Sigel?  The web is now a place for (hopefully) useful stuff I generate but don’t plan to jump those those god-awful publishing hoops to share.  I have published and I plan to continue to do so, but only a small percentage of what I am doing is unique or mature enough to bother.

I do see museums as the kind of place that is by nature slow and deliberative.  Not designed to jump headlong into new things but rather hang back, observe, and help history sort itself out.  AIC would have a hard time keeping up with Daniel Cull in terms of relevance anyway.  Who runs AIC?  How large is the staff and what can they reasonably get accomplished??  Manueverability is an unfair expectation of AIC.  Should stick to the things it can do well…providing a platform instead of content.  Free up the AIC website as a clearninghouse.  Find a conservator.  PA Fellow, Annual meeting.    Nice to park useful stuff within an institutional structure to insure its survival.

Poster foreign language  data aia

Weakness: who is attracted to this medium?  Museum-L  some of the most vociferous posters have some of the least reliable information.

Culture of exclusivity and elitism.  Who is being kept out?  Outside the tent pissing in or inside the tent pissing out??  What can MY blog do?   Broader collaboration networks.

Tour: check out my blog

Marine mammal necropsy: check this project

Granting agency: here is this prototype

intern, this is what working with me would be like

People often come to museums to visit a specific artifact or collection they have a connection with.

People whose input you might really value are often not hanging out on their computers trolling the internet for places to contribute their expertise.

Closed email listserves…Museum-L.

I also really liked McCoy’s article.  I’ve printed it out and left it on the breakroom table for my co-workers to read.  (Funny, they are more likely to read it that way than if I send them a link…something about food and reading.)  The Alaska State Museum where I work is in the process of determining how to merge the state museum, library, and archive into a future purpose-built structure.  Discussions about areas of overlap & collaboration and ways to serve our constituents invariably come back to distance delivery and the opportunities of Web 2.0.  From my five years experience as a curator at a small museum, I realized that many people visit museums to visit a specific artifact or collection they have a personal connection with.  Not only is their information about that object potentially valuable to the institution, but in a healthy human animal there is a need to feel like a contributing member of society.  Something about being inspired or connecting with big ideas stirs a desire in many people to be creative…to leave their mark…to be generous.   However, that tendency can sometimes go awry.  Museum-L for example.  I have subscribed to that listserve for about 8 years now.  Some of the most vociferous posters there have some of the least reliable information, but a huge desire to post.  Some folks post there asking for information before doing even the most basic google search.  But it is a window into the struggles of small-to-medium sized museums nationwide.  I have cringed many times reading horrible conservation advice from non-conservators.  But that forum is also where I met and formed my opinion about David Harvey, who can consistently be relied upon to gently correct misconceptions about conservation and steer receptive museum staff in the right direction, wrapping up with a chipper “Cheers! Dave.”  I used to play a little game of “what would Dave say?”  and usually I would agree with his assessment.  Eventually I was able to meet him in person, but my opinion of him was fully formed virtually.  I do believe Dave is a bit of an exception.  There is a certain personality type who gravitates towards this medium, and I think we’ll see a plateau in the potential usefulness of 2.0 because there are folks whose input we’d really value, but they are busy doing other work and not online looking for places to contribute their expertise.  And there will be legions of people who would love to share their opinion, but they don’t have the expertise to make it valuable.

Does AIC tick you off?

I can see why you hate AIC, but…

Rant on AIC, Elitism, and Blogs: Where is the Love?

Straight from Wikipedia: “Elitism is the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite—a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes—are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.”

First things first: we need AIC and I respect the role it plays in our professionalism.  You could say I was suckled at the AIC teat.  Back in 1993, I was trying to find someone who would tell me what the heck “conservation” was.  I made a long distance phone call to Jay Krueger, who my uncle told me was a friend of a friend and one of this mysterious breed called “conservators.”  It was quite a short conversation, and the upshot was “ask AIC.”  I sent away for their brochures (by mail!) and poured over the requirements of the programs.  It was the first of many times I turned to AIC to tell me what I needed to do.  In graduate school at NYU, the conservation professors referred frequently to the standards and ethics outlined by AIC and required us to follow them in our coursework.  I became a member in 1997.  As an emerging professional, I found myself moving to Alaska, the home of exactly three conservators: one was a contemporary from the Winterthur/Delaware program (Monica Shah) and the other was the man I had just married (Scott Carroll from the buffalo program, soon to be Carrlee.)  I also accepted a job as a curator of collections and exhibits, and began a part-time business doing private conservation work.  Suddenly I had a ton of questions about ethics and the standards of practice I would have to live up to in starting a business.  Again, I turned to AIC and studied its core documents carefully.  I became more interested in listserves in order to stay informed about the conservation world, and frequently thumbed through the AIC directory to see if someone who had posted was affiliated with AIC and therefore steeped in the same professional standards I was familiar with.  Occasionally, someone with an excellent reputation and interesting postings was not listed in AIC at all, and I would wonder why.  In 2006, I jumped through the hoops to become an AIC Professional Associate, which seemed like the closest thing to being vetted by a national professional conservation organization.  I have used AIC and its core documents as a touchstone every step of my career.

After I’d been in the field awhile, I began to hear more about why some people didn’t like AIC.  It was elitist, some claimed.  Critical and harsh to outsiders.  It was behind the times.  It didn’t do enough advocacy in the wider public arena to benefit its members.  It had a history of excluding natural history, archaeology, and ethnographic conservation.  It had a history of setting up confrontational or adversarial relationships with various groups of people: people who were not program trained, restorers, foreigners, archaeologists, maritime conservators, etc.  And there were a fair number of people who had been involved with AIC their entire careers but declared they were fed up, and membership in AIC had no benefits for them.   At first, I assumed they had just had run-ins with some of the more abrasive and powerful personalities that often dominate organizations like AIC.  I daresay conservators can be a cantankerous and self-righteous lot.  I still think that’s part of the issue.  But I also think there is much to be learned (and perhaps a better path for the future) by studying the history of the organization.  There could be a thesis written on that, no doubt.  Reading the “Murray Pease Report” and other early documents however, makes it clear that AIC in the 1960’s was largely an organization of conservators specializing in paintings and sculpture.  Individual artifacts of high monetary value that justified money being spent on their conservation.  Those who identified as “conservators” were interested in developing standards to differentiate themselves from “restorers.”  Conservators were scientifically and morally saving art from those who were using dubious recipe books and old wives’ tales to turn a fast buck at the peril of our heritage.  Was this the beginning of an “us versus them” mentality?  Throughout AIC’s history, the institutional culture has time and again organized itself around fighting “them.”  Loosely defined, AIC’s critics have come to see themselves in “them” … anyone who disagrees with the AIC.


1) They are turned off by a culture of elitism

2) They are round pegs and AIC is a square hole

3) They are not program trained

4) They have unreasonable expectations

5) They are maritime archaeologists (!)

6) They had a run-in with someone irritating who seemed like a mouthpiece for AIC

7) They don’t need the benefits membership offers

Following the recent debate/defeat of certification, it seems that the organization has now entered a period of introspection and re-evaluation.   AIC is unlikely to break free of its aura of elitism.  It is also doomed to be a venue for those who insist on shooting off their mouths in an undiplomatic fashion.  But it does serve a very important role in conservation in the United States: it is our national professional organization.  Let’s not underestimate that.  But perhaps elitism has been at the root of conservation remaining separate from the museum world: separate programs, training curriculums, and conferences.  Chenall’s Nomenclature anyone?  Marie Malaro?  AAM’s General Facilities Report? Conservation students are not taught what other museum staff do.  Often, the conservator on staff is seen as the obstructionist. The one who says “no.”  The one who goes by the book and makes everything difficult.  The one who does not get invited to the table.  Elitism is perhaps the cause of AIC’s biggest failure: no one knows what conservation is.  When I give a lab tour, I always have to define conservation.  My good friends still mistake me for a curator.  Plenty of people think we protect trees.  After nearly 50 years (NYU’s Conservation Center was founded in 1960) we still are scarcely known to the public.

As for myself, I feel like I am breaking rank with AIC in some ways.  This month, I have joined the AIA and the SAA.  As a conservator of ethnographic and archaeological materials, I was not even aware until last week that the SAA has a group about perishables.  While I enjoy the AIC annual conference, I think I’ll be aiming to go less often in order to direct resources at attending conferences in allied professions.  This has been a talking point in AIC for some time, but there seem to be only a handful who walk the walk.  And I am posting information liberally on the internet…info that might have been considered taboo in the past.  When I was in graduate school, treatments done as part of the core courses were saved in a file cabinet in the library.  But it was locked.  Students had to request the key, and it was discouraged.  I never found out why, and I was too timid to ask.  In some ways, I feel the conservation profession is locked in that way, particularly when it comes to availability of treatment information, lest it “fall into the wrong hands.”  After more than a decade in the profession, I have come to believe that in many cases, lack of treatment information does not generally force those objects into the competent hands of conservators.  Nor does it mean that the object won’t be treated.  People will just give it their best shot.  Inside the tent pissing out or outside the tent pissing in?

I have had several stimulating telephone conversations with Jim Jobling at the CRL Texas A&M maritime conservation lab.  Certainly there are many ways that his lab is not “AIC compliant.”  And you know what?  He doesn’t care.  He does his work the best he can according to the parallel universe of standards that have developed in maritime conservation world.  Google the names of people who treat shipwreck material or wetsite archaeology and most of those names are not coming from the AIC world.  In fact, many of those names have been affiliated with the Texas A&M program.  Or the program in South Carolina.  If AIC cannot or will not be more inclusive then it is up to us.  And perhaps our more nimble regional organizations like WAAC and midwest…??MRCG

Elitism is not solely the realm of conservators.  There is brand of elitism found among folks who have passion for spending a lot of time with computers.  People who are conversant in Blogs, Wikis, Twitter, Ning, Delicious, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace…those people are the future. They are connected.  They have the answers.  Or do they?  While the potential of many of these platforms is appealing, the actual content is often rather meagre.  Visually stimulating and rather amusing, they remind me of the recent trend toward museums as entertainment.  The blockbuster!  The wall of graphics!  The touch-me interactive!  I say, show me the REAL STUFF.  Give me content.  What is it made of?  Who made it?  Why?

People who KNOW THINGS tend to share generously, while people who are not sure of their knowledge tend to be defensive and secretive.

Spruce Root Weavers and Basketry Repair at the Museum

February 7, 2019


In the fall of 2018, the conservation lab at the Alaska State Museum offered a spruce root basketry repair class specifically for spruce root weavers. This was the same class I had given at the 2016 Museums Alaska conference, mainly to museum professionals. During that earlier class, two participants who were spruce root weavers suggested the class would be interesting to other weavers. Several conservators also took the class, and suggested it would be interesting to offer at a conservation conference. The November 2018 class for weavers was a five-hour course, with a free kit. It included hands-on learning of the Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste repair technique, examination of 40 damaged baskets in the ASM conservation study collection, a review of the pros and cons of the old repair techniques on baskets in the museum collection, and an informal discussion of cultural priorities in basketry repair.

1 setup

View of the Alaska State Museum objects conservation lab set up for the spruce root basketry repair class, November 3, 2018

The class took place in the Alaska State Museum objects conservation lab with eight experienced weavers, both Native and non-Native.

2 supplies

The free kit supplied to each weaver.

The supply kit the weavers got to keep included tiny scissors, fine pointed tweezers, paste in a plastic container, a small pouch of dry wheat starch paste powder (Talas #301), distilled water, small paintbrushes, Japanese tissue, a felt pallet, and references (see below).

3 Spruce root repair class

View of the lab showing the weavers at work testing the current repair technique and viewing old repair techniques

Study baskets on the table in the foreground. Hans Chester and Yarrow Varrow look at old repairs on baskets from the museum collection on the multi-tiered cart. Kay Field Parker (standing in the purple) observes the work of Pamla Credo-Hayes. Seated L to R are Della Cheney, Marcia Stier, Liana Wallace, and Irene Lampe.

4 sample

Example of a basketry tear, the splints unpainted, and the painted finished repairs in sequence

An example of the technique. You see the open tear to the left in the image, then 8 vertical white “splints” of twisted Japanese tissue held in place with starch paste to close the tear. Note that some are thicker, and some are thinner. Thinner ones grip better and are easier to hide. Next to the white splints are 6 more that have been toned with acrylic paint and nearly disappear.

5 Pamla Credo Hayes

Pamla at the basketry repair workshop

Pamla Credo-Hayes in the process of dragging a tiny twisted Japanese tissue splint through the paste just before she applies it to the tear.

6 Irene Kay Liana

Irene, Lay, and Liana at the basketry repair workshop.

Irene Lampe experiments with larger splints rolled on her palm, while Kay Field Parker looks at Liana Wallace’s repair setup.

7 Liana's tools

Liana’s equipment

Liana Wallace brought in her own lighting and magnification equipment, which clips to the edge of the table. The basket is sitting on sandbags for support and has two pieces of thick curled blotter paper sandwiching the tear in the basket wall, held gently with clothespins to allow the tear to be held in alignment.

8 Della Cheney

Della at the basketry repair workshop.

Della Cheney works a tissue splint in the paste. She brought in a classic reference book on spruce root baskets by Tlingit scholar Louis Shotridge. Della Cheney is a well-known Haida weaver in several media and has particular expertise in spruce root. Della’s sister-in-law, Edna Jackson, is known for her expertise in papermaking. Papermaking was discussed in regards to the Japanese tissue splints.

9 Della's book Liana's bark

Della’s book and Liana’s gift of cedar.

I bought Della Cheney’s book about cedar bark weaving, Weaving Our World, at a local bookstore, but last I looked it was available on both Xlibris and Amazon. Della spoke at the workshop about the challenges and successes she has experienced repairing cedar baskets, and the dilemma of how to reshape cedar bark hats that get wet if they are worn outdoors for ceremonies and cultural events. (after all, Southeast Alaska is a temperate rainforest). The cedar in this photo is courtesy of Liana Wallace, who donated it to the lab for exploration of indigenous repair innovations.

10 Hans and Yarrow

Hans and Yarrow innovating at the basketry repair workshop.

Weavers Hans Chester and Yarrow Vaara discuss what kinds of repairs might use indigenous materials, including spruce root, cedar bark, and perhaps handmade paper from local plants.

11 Yarrow demonstrates

Liana, Irene, Marcia, Yarrow, Hans and Kay at the basketry repair workshop.

Yarrow Vaara (grey shirt) demonstrates her ideas about splinting robust basketry material with spruce root. Observing from L to R around the table are Liana Wallace, Marcia Stier, Hans Chester, and Kay Field Parker. In the background, Irene Lampe adjusts the basket she is repairing.

12 Yarrow's splints

Yarrow’s splints on an old basket.

Detail view of damaged area of the study basket, showing an area dampened to increase flexibility, and thin splints of spruce root worked through the wefts to replace broken warps.

13 trimmed splints

Yarrow’s splints on an old basket after trimming.

Detail view of the same area dried and trimmed. The splints could be toned to match with acrylic paint, and the splint could be inserted on the inside to hide the exposed ends. While the Japanese tissue and starch paste technique is an effective, gentle option for museum conservation and some baskets in the community, these repairs are quite delicate would readily fail on basketry objects (such as hats) still needed for active ceremonial or cultural use.

I’m offering another spruce root repair course for conservators at the American Institute for Conservation conference. The half-day workshop will take place May 13, 2019 at the AIC’s 47thAnnual Meeting in Uncasville, CT. The workshop will include the Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste technique, but also discussions about what I learned from the weavers. I am interested in what is happening to make space in museum practice for indigenous authority and what kinds of collaborations conservators can initiate. I am grateful for a stipend received from AIC and its Objects Specialty Group to travel to Connecticut for the AIC conference and I look forward to reporting back on this weblog what kind of feedback I get from conservators about the insights shared by the weavers. I am very much hoping to discuss issues of indigenous authority further with conservators during the conference, looking for examples of successful collaborative practice and making space for Native voices. The Alaska State Museum conservation lab has been active sporadically in this endeavor, but more recently we’ve been thinking about it more strategically.

The references I printed out for the weaver’s kits included the following:

Florian, Mary-Lou, Dale Paul Krinkright, and Ruth E. Norton (1990) The Conservation of Artifacts Made from Plant Materials. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Gleeson, Molly and Samantha Springer (2008) “Collaborative Work Towards the Preservation of Spruce Root Basketry as a Living Tradition.” American Institute for Conservation Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume 15.

McHugh, Kelly (2008) “Living Our Cultures: Consultations with Elaine Kingeekuk.” ICOM-CC Working Group: Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter. Number 29 pp. 13-14.



Chilkat Dye Project

September 18, 2018

INTRODUCTION to the Chilkat Dye Project

shows detail of a Chilkat robe

Detail of Chilkat robe, showing face and four main colors: black, white, yellow and blue. Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1744

Are you a Chilkat weaver at any level of experience? Or have you studied these robes and want to share with weavers? Do you know things about natural dye technology that might help us? Please connect with us… the Chilkat Dye Working Group is exploring many facets of Chilkat weaving beyond the technical aspects of the grant…

A five-year $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has established the Pacific Northwest Conservation Science Consortium. The consortium is headquartered in the chemistry lab of Dr. Tami Lasseter Clare at Portland State University and includes five institutions:

  • Portland Art Museum (Samantha Springer, Jeannie Kenmotsu, Donald Urquhart, Kristin Bayans)
  • Seattle Art Museum (Nicholas Dorman, Geneva Griswold)
  • Alaska State Museum (Ellen Carrlee, Liana Wallace)
  • Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at U. of Oregon (Anne Rose Kitagawa, Chris White)
  • University of Washington Libraries (Justin Johnson, Stephanie Lamson)

The initial meeting of consortium members was August 16-17, 2018 in Portland. Among the projects proposed, Ellen Carrlee and Liana Wallace at the Alaska State Museum initiated a Chilkat Dye Project for analysis and identification of the dyes used on particular historic Northwest Coast Native Chilkat robes. Ethnographic sources and contemporary weavers describe some of the natural dyes used in the past, but there are few studies linking known robes to specific dyes. Research on organic dyes is beyond the scientific capacity of most museums. A working group of Chilkat weavers and museum staff meet monthly at the Alaska State Museum to share data and ideas.


  • Begin monthly meetings of Chilkat Dye Working Group
  • Inventory of the known historic and contemporary dyes typically used (ie hemlock bark, wolf moss etc) through oral history and literature review
  • Procuring samples for baseline analysis and sending to Portland
  • Development of a reference database for Chilkat dyes
  • Discuss project with consortium


  • Send samples from old robes to Portland for analysis and identification
  • Look for patterns to help interpret makers, locations, and dates for robes
  • Connect research to Regalia exhibit at Alaska State Museum, summer 2020
  • Consortium to meet in Juneau, summer 2020. Celebration? Public program?


  • Share knowledge, ie Clan Conference, Celebration, public programs, social media
  • Develop educational materials to enhance science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) education.
  • Publication of articles for various audiences

Contact: Ellen Carrlee

Chilkat salmon trout head detail of robe

Detail from Chilkat Robe in the Alaska State Museum, II-B-1744, showing what is sometimes called “salmon trout head” in the traditional Chilkat weaving colors of white, black, yellow, and blue.



Owen’s Rhubarb Fiber Experiments

July 19, 2018


Rhubarb grows well in the rainforest climate of Juneau, Alaska where Owen Hutchinson grew up. His mom, Anni Stokes, has made amazing rhubarb pies from her garden his whole life. The local handmade ice cream shop, Coppa, made its reputation on Marc Wheeler’s signature rhubarb sorbet and rhubarb sherbet. It has since branched out into devil’s club, salmon, and other flavors of place, but rhubarb is a perennial favorite with the regulars. Marc recently started using a bladder press to extract flavor from the rhubarb, and Owen saw potential in the beautiful dusky reddish pink and sage green smashed stalks leftover from the pressings. Fresh off an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Owen’s thesis work involved some textile work and he was intrigued with the idea of using rhubarb fiber in his art. He gave me permission to share here some of his experiments in pulling out usable fiber material in the hopes that other folks out there might have some insights and suggestions about using non-traditional fiber sources like rhubarb.

dried peeled no treatment 6

Above is an image of the material he was able to hand strip from the pressed rhubarb…a lovely color, but time consuming to prepare and somewhat brittle.

kitty litter

To encourage drying, the sample in the cardboard box was put in kitty litter, but it became dull, brittle, and ugly.


A salted sample was somewhat easier to manipulate, and it was pliable and bright, though it still retains quite a bit of moisture at this point in the process…

retted week3

This promising-looking material was retted in water for a week. Retting is essentially controlled rotting, a method used for centuries to remove useful bast fibers from plants…the most widely known example is retting flax to make linen.

owen 2

The experiments are continuing. It is still not known how lightfast the lovely color might be. Here’s hoping other experimental souls out there with a passion for plant materials, fiber technology, and textiles might want to share helpful insights?


Cleaning Native Leather In Use?

January 29, 2018

0B36C027-6E3D-4D9E-8466-4CC46E728E8AThis beaded leather Athabascan vest is the subject of a recent question to the Alaska State Museum: tribal members want to know how to clean leather. The tribe is conducting interviews with members to record the meanings and origins of important regalia and taking photographs. This vest is the Chief’s vest, and still in active use. The tribe does not have a large number of cultural heritage pieces, making it rare and important. Elders still wear items of regalia like this, and some elders may “take them on their journey at their end of this life.” The Cultural Program Manager for the village traditional council is wondering how the normal soiling from years of use might be cleaned, and how they might provide ongoing care for things like this.  We need to take into consideration museum care standards but also the cultural need to continue using the vest.

I love this question because we are hearing it more and more at the Alaska State Museum…how to support the care of objects in active cultural use? On the one hand, there are commercial products that might reduce some of the stains seen here, but those chemicals might shorten the longevity of the leather. Proprietary commercial products often contain extra chemicals that are not useful and can be harmful, and the strength of the active ingredients can be much more harsh than we would use in a museum setting. In the museum setting, the prevention protocols would be very strict and we’d be aiming to preserve this vest for around 500 years.


I’m not certain the exact leather technology we are seeing in the photo, but if I had to guess I would think perhaps a Native-tanned moosehide (perhaps similar to the technique currently being collaboratively studied at the Anchorage Museum…keep an eye out for the report on that project). The thickness, color, and Athabascan origin make me think it might be moosehide. You can see a fuzzy suede-like layer on the front of the vest, and a grain layer on the interior of the vest. If a leather is flexible, everything but the grain layer is like a felted tangle of collagen (skin protein) fibers. The grain layer is the layer that had the fur…the layer we typically see on the outside of a motorcycle jacket or baseball glove. Some Native-tanned leathers have the grain layer removed. But behind the grain is that felt-like tangle. The suede-like part. The flexibility of leather is maintained by the tanning process which lubricated the fibers to prevent them from binding up with each other. This happens BEFORE the leather is dried, which is part of why WE DON’T USE LEATHER DRESSINGS:

Here’s the tricky part…the cleaning techniques conservators like to use on leather are usually done dry (things like vacuuming, the dry use of soot sponges or urethane sponges, gentle cleaning with unvulcanized rubber such as Groom/Stick or vinyl such as a white eraser…) These can be a little bit abrasive, pull up fibers, or deposit crumbs of the cleaning sponge in the structure of the leather, but it is hard to cause serious damage with those techniques. Unfortunately, those techniques don’t tend to get rid of greasy soiling, such as from body oils, sweat, or food residues. In order to remove that kind of soiling, conservators might turn to wet techniques (distilled water with various substances added to enhance cleaning, detergents, solvents etc). But the danger in going with wet cleaning is that the things intentionally put in the leather during its manufacture that keep it supple and soft can ALSO be cleaned right out or moved around by wet techniques. This can result in stiff, shrunken, darkened, or distorted leather. It could also cause the stains to simply move around or go deeper into the leather and not actually come out.   In other words, the kind of aggressive techniques needed to make stains like that come out might actually make things worse. Museums often accept a certain level of use-related staining as part of the object’s history. This might not be appropriate for ongoing cultural purposes.

I put this posting out on the blog here to stimulate discussion about the risks and possibilities for cleaning and caring for this kind of item. It is more precious and special than most of the things in our closets at home, but it is also unreasonable to expect museum-level protection for something that is still in active service. I think where we are headed is for folks with museum expertise to provide as much USEFUL information as possible to the folks tasked with caring for these items, and empower them to pursue the kinds of solutions that work in their communities. I’ll provide an update to this post when the conversation has gone further…

UPDATE 2/3/2017:

I asked others in the objects conservation profession for ideas on this cleaning dilemma, and as usual my colleagues were very generous with their knowledge and advice. Choices for cleaning this vest include a wide range of options, each with pros and cons. On the most conservative end of the spectrum is the possibility of doing nothing, and accepting the “wear polishing” as a confirmation of the history, heritage, and authenticity of the garment. Next gentlest is the use of relatively crumb-free cleaners used dry, such as white foam cosmetic sponges, or “soot” sponges marketed under such names as Absorene, Smoke-off, and Gonzo. Sometimes soot sponges (vulcanized rubber sponges) do leave some crumbs, but they are often sizeable and easy to vacuum off. Someone suggested there might be risk of removing or reducing possible smoke tanning in the leather with a soot sponge. Dry, powdery cleaners were also suggested for soaking up the oily staining: warm dry cornmeal, baking soda, corn flour, Fuller’s Earth, or powdered erasers were mentioned. Any of those would then need to be removed from the surface, and might be difficult to remove entirely or might leave a residue. For example, corn flour might leave a scum of corn oil? A thin absorbent tissue in between might reduce the residue transfer, but might also block absorptive action. Removing the powdered cleaners might be trickier than expected, and enough suction to remove the powder could also remove some leather fibers. Somewhat more aggressive is the suggestion that roughing up the surface to scatter the light might help the stain look lighter, even if it did not go away. For example, gently rubbing the surface in a rotary motion with a paintbrush, or even micro-abrading the surface with a scalpel under a binocular microscope. On the most aggressive end of the spectrum were techniques that might use petroleum distillates such as Naptha or white spirit to dissolve the oil, or other water/detergent or solvent-based cleaning options. There were even suggestions of solvent cleaning mixed with lecithin to replace fats that might be pulled from the leather by solvents. Oily substances are both a stain component but also a natural part of the leather. The “wet” cleaning techniques offer the highest risk for damage in the form of stain movement, tidelines, stiffening of the leather, matting of the surface, or other undesirable effects. The wet techniques are most likely to give dramatic results, but come with the most dramatic risks too. Anything attempted along those lines (or the use of commercially available leather cleaners) should perhaps start with a really tiny area inside the pocket? Testing inside the pocket is a good idea with any technique. What this all comes down to is the ultimate goal the community has for the cleaning of this vest, and comfort caretakers have for the risks. Museums can share the ideas and techniques used in the conservation lab, but my goal is to make an object last for 500 years and that might not be the purpose of this particular vest. One final thought …investment is often made in retaining skills, relationships, and knowledge about technologies so new beaded leather vests can be made, too. There are Athabascan beaders and skin sewers who know how to make new vests, and this is a complementary preservation technique too. Thank you to everyone who shared in this conversation! I hope to post another update later on…



Glass Photo “Mammoth” Plates?

September 13, 2017

IMG_2875So, my photography-loving friends, what are “mammoth plates” and do these count? Glass measures 24″ x 20″ and framed they are 26″ x 22″. They are a lot like lantern slides because they have some sort of emulsion trapped between two sheets of glass and the image is hard to see without light shining through it. But when you do shine the light oh my! Because of their size, the detail and relationship to the viewer is impressive. Are these rare? Is the technique itself compelling? They were cataloged into our collection in the 1960s, and the database suggests they are “dry plate” or “transparency” but I’m not sure those are the correct terms for the photographic process used.

We are considering pursuing treatment of this collection of 1903 images by the Miles Brothers. Seems these photographers came to Alaska during the gold rush at the behest of a railroad company and took pictures meant to attract investors? It was probably the Valdez, Copper River and Tanana Railroad Company. We believe the images were later displayed at the AYPE (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition) in Seattle in 1909.  The Miles Brothers are better known for their early motion picture work, and had a studio in San Francisco. The negatives from this Alaska venture were apparently lost in a fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

I don’t know if we’ve got a complete set here, probably not. Our first image is from  Southeast Alaska, and then they seemed to go up to the Valdez area and headed for the Yukon River and finally out to the Bering Sea. The sequence below is my best guess, corrections welcome.


Taku Glacier on Taku Inlet. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-9. Note the strange brown bubbled area in the middle. Can this be fixed?

ASM_UA-UC_136 Merged

Glory Hole of Treadwell Mine. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA-UC-136. This plate is broken and the glass itself would need repair


Hawkins Point on the White Pass & Yukon Railway. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-14


Fort Liscum, Military Fort on Valdez Bay 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-138. I noticed online there is a nice image of this at the Anchorage Museum, apparently belongs to the Cook Inlet Historical Society. I don’t know if it is a print or something large like this.

ASM_No Number 2

Valdez in 1903. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum. Strange brown stain, could this be burned? Also, the shattered flaking in the sky is seen on several of the images, but often in lighter areas?

ASM_No Number 3

Pioneer’s Home and Garden at Valdez. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum

ASM_No Number 1

Crossing Copper River. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum


Tonsina Crossing on the Trail Between Valdez and Fairbanks. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-11


Horses Crossing the Kotsina, A Branch of the Copper (?) River. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-133


On Elliott Creek, Copper River District. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-10


Typical Prospector’s Camp. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-13. Another one with a broken edge. You can see we propped these up on a light table just to get some record of what they look like…



Fire Department at Circle. Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-360. The hands give a sense of scale for these glass plates. The scale gives an intimacy to the image beyond a normal sized photo.


Detail from Fire Department at Circle, Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-390. Note how the message on the fence says, “RING LIKE H-L IN CASE OF FIRE.”


Another detail from Fire Department at Circle City. Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-390. Look at that good dog! How about the moustache/beard?


Detail of the wood and copper framing typical of those that have frames


Star City on the Yukon River. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-12. Note the uneven lighting behind this one, makes the image hard to read. This one is on exhibit right now, and the light bars behind it are not so bad in person.

ASM V-C-12

Detail from Star City on the Yukon River 1903.     Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-12. Look at the fur and the texture of the harness!


The Garden of Pioneers in Interior. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-139. Note the paper stuck to the back of this one. Many of these are missing the back piece of glass, making them very vulnerable.



Pioneer Cabin. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-134. Look! This one has been hand colored. In some areas you can see fingerprints.


Sunset on the Yukon. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-8


Eskimo Children of St Michael. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-135. Unfortunately, the area of two of the faces is completely missing here.


Eskimos Carving Ivory…Reindeer Camp. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-132


Ducks…near Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-138. Note the strange rounded damage areas near the bottom center. Is this mold perhaps?


Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-15


Winter Came to the Arctic Sea. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-131


Chinese Chests on the Northwest Coast

August 4, 2017

IMG_1459This posting is a gift for a certain clan caretaker and woodworker who is interested in making some of these chests. It is easy to find photos of the exterior. This post is heavy on the visuals and interiors, to help understand the construction technique.

These chests are ubiquitous in museum collections that include Tlingit and Haida material culture, even small museums in Southeast Alaska tend to have several of them. Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson has a research file on these chests, and added the following information into the museum’s database regarding them:

“These chests were made in China beginning in the mid 1800s or earlier for the export market. They were popular in Europe and the United States, especially during the Victorian era. In Alaska, these chests were very popular among the Tlingit and Haida people, who used them for storage of ceremonial regalia, clothing, and other property. The resins in the camphorwood were believed to have repelled moths and other insects. There are two basic forms of Chinese camphorwood chests that were traded in Alaska: one made of varnished boards, and the other made of boards covered with painted pigskin. Both have brass hardware and reinforcements on the corners and edges. The pigskin covered chests are also decorated with rows of brass tacks, which usually outline the brass fittings…. To save room in the ships’ holds, the chests came in at least 3 sizes, and designed to nest together; the smallest chest contained a stash of Chinese tea. The earliest visual representation of these chests is a drawing by I.G. Voznesenskii of a Sitka potlatch ca. 1844; other seafarers mention purchasing chest in China even earlier.”

ASM 92-13-1 from Yakutat 37″L x 17 1/2″W x 16 1/2″H

Here is one with no painted pigskin on the outside. Nice dovetail details in the corners.


ASM 91-48-1 from Old Kasaan, early 1800s. 33″ L x 16″W x 14 1/2″ H

Another plain one, no tack holes so we know it never had pigskin covering. Sometimes things that are a little damaged reveal the most about methods of manufacture. The way the corners are done on this one is really nice. Also, you can see how the brass parts are set in…the wood is ever so slightly recessed so the whole surface will be flush after the brass is added.



ASM 90-17-1 from Sitka, the Wolf House, Gootch Hit. 1790-1850.

38 1/2″L x 18 1/2″W x 15 1/2″H

One more plain one without leather. Notice how the lock mechanism is similar on the three plain ones. Also, this one seems to have a repaired area on the lid? Generally each side of these chests was a single big plank. On all the chests the lock on the front face is met along the edge with a beveled feature on the wood.



ASM III-O-128 unknown provenance 34 1/2″L x 17 1/2″W x 15 1/2″H

Most of the painted ones I have seen are green or red, with perhaps red being more common? The foliage design I have once or twice seen on carved silver bracelets. I guess camphorwood is the equivalent of cedar in some ways, highly aromatic and with an insect repellent quality to it. That would be quite important in keeping pests away from wool robes, furs, feathers, and other elements on regalia that might be at risk for infestation.


ASM 95-37-4-3 from Wrangell 23 1/4″L x 11 1/2″W x 9 1/2″H

This one is the baby brother of the two that are on display in the first image. This size is the smallest of the typical sizes, and you’ll see the underside is different. No “feet” on this one. This seems typical of the small ones.


ASM II-B-1584 unknown provenance 39 1/2″L x 20 1/4″W x 18 1/2″H

This is the largest one in the Alaska State Museum collection. You’ll see the back is undecorated. That seems typical, too. Front, sides, and lid tend to have the foliage decoration (sometimes including birds) but I have not seen the back decorated.



II-B-1367 unknown provenance 35″L x 17 1/4″W x 15 1/2″H

The leather and the wood react to changes in humidity differently, but they are not allowed to move independently because they are tacked all together by the brass tacks and trim. Consequently, almost all of these pigskin-covered chests I have seen have extensive tears in them. Treatment-wise, the most straightforward repair would be to insert a layer behind the tear that would match, and tack the edges to it as best as possible. The chain on this one is not original. Typically they have hardware like the previous one.