Top 10 Projects: January 2009

A list of irons in the fire in my lab:

1. PEG BASKETRY RESEARCH: Ready to put basketry fragments in the freezer in the final step before examining how the samples held up.  They are (likely) spruce root basketry fragments, perhaps a few hundred years old, from a waterlogged archaeological context.  All we treated with 20% PEG 400, half at room temp and half heated.  Then I tried various amounts of PEG 3350 to test my hypothesis that poor results reported for some PEG treated basketry might be from too much low mw PEG and not enough high mw PEG.  I plan to publish the results, as well as info about other PEG basketry treatment done at the Alaska State Museum, but it would be much more fun if this goes well.  I do believe there will be valuable information if there is NOT success, but it will be less enjoyable to write up and more of a duty thing.   Incidentally, if you’re reading this and have dabbled in PEG, I’d love to chat with you.

2. PEG BASKETRY CONSOLIDATION:  Some of the oldest archaeological basketry on the Northwest Coast (5,000 year old) is in the Alaska State Museum collection, but the PEG treatment done for it years ago was only partially successful.  The fragments are preserved and look nice, but they are fragile and are rather like fibrous pieces of dried meat.  I think careful consolidation with Butvar B-98 applied with a nebulizer might do the trick, allowing them to be exhibited and perhaps even travel.

3. BASKETRY SURVEY: Begun in 2007 as the first of a series of materials-based conservation surveys of the collection.  Almost none of the ASM’s collection has condition descriptions in the database, and a large percentage of the collection is not photographed.  The survey is capturing this basic information, as well as providing interesting insights and an inventory along the way.  Survey is approximately 20% complete, but I have offered to give presentations at the “Alaska Anthropological Association” conference and the Tlingit clan conference in Juneau this March, so this might kick into high gear soon of my proposals are accepted.

4. NATURAL HISTORY SURVEY:  Begun in 2008 with a consultation with Catharine Hawks which was incredibly helpful.  The natural history collection is rather small, and has been somewhat neglected for years, both in terms of storage conditions and curation.  The herbarium contains more than 5,000 specimens dating back into the 1920’s.  The geology collection is undoubtedly of some scientific value, even without the boxes and boxes of well-identified specimens sitting on the floor of my lab because they’ve never been added to the collection.  The marine shell collection might be significant, I am not sure.  There are hundreds of taxidermy birds, which I am arsenic testing at the moment.  Some of those are almost 100 years old and indeed the vast majority are positive for arsenic.  Small but unmolested collection of fossils, including many mammoth teeth.  This survey is about 25% complete.


Bone brush from the Torrent shipwreck, Alaska State Museum collection

Bone brush from the Torrent shipwreck, Alaska State Museum collection

Twelve small plastic tubs of artifacts from the 1868 Torrent shipwreck are currently desalinating in the lab.  Munitions,metal items, ceramics, and glass mostly.  A bronze howitzer will be contracted out and is still in the lab of  state archaeologist, Dave McMahan.   So are several portholes, and an unusual ceramic and lead toilet.  Shipwreck items and waterlogged archaeological items regularly make their way to the Alaska State Museum.  I’m fascinated by the demands of these materials, but equally fascinated by the diverse approaches and strained history between AIC-affiliated conservators and the majority of conservators treating this kind of material who have been trained at the Texas A&M program.  A can of worms I’m sure, but I want to know more…


Olympus BX-51 PLM

Olympus BX-51 PLM


More info in a previous posting.  This is the project I am enjoying the most right now.












Yup'ik Child's Parka, Alaska State Museum Collection

Yup'ik Child's Parka, Alaska State Museum Collection


Tear repair needed for a child’s parka made from baby caribou and another  parka made from marmot skins that had been turned into a bomber-jacket style around WWII.  I plan to try Reemay and BEVA with a heat spatula.







Gutskin Cap from the Sheldon Jackson Museum collection

Gutskin Cap from the Alaska State Museum collection

Three items made of gutskin, probably seal, came as part of as part of a recent acquisition.  Two were decorative bags, and then this fabulous hat.  They are thought to be Aleut or Alutiiq, and the rim of the hat in particular needs some humidification in order to be exhibited.  Reference literature suggests the welting is made of sea lion esophagus.

There are also a pair of child’s boots from the Sheldon Jackson Museum, possibly Aleut, that are made of some inner membrane of a marine mammal.  Possibly esophagus?  How to distinguish between all these stomaches and guts and bladders and windpipes and the like?  Two graduate students have separately contacted me about this kind of material identification: Linda Lin at the UCLA/ Getty program working with Ellen Pearlstein and Amy Tjiong at the NYU Conservation Center working with Linda Nieuwenhuizen.  I’m hoping to stir up some collaboration.  Stay tuned for a blog musing on the issue…


With no collection manager on staff, I have to pitch in with storage solutions.  Fine art has long since outgrown its digs, and I’ve been looking into ModuPanel kits as the solution, designed by Peter Diemand at Biblio Design and now sold by a number of vendors.  We’ve also got watercraft, vintage snow machines, small airplane engines, houseposts, a mammoth skull, salmon canning equipment and other oversize items that could really use some nice big rolling shelves without pesky cross-bracing.  I know other institutions have done it, but finding a source has proven elusive.  Any ideas, folks?  


Here’s the problem: in a water emergency (and so many of them are) salvage and triage guides all talk about freezing your paper-based collections within 2-3 days to prevent mold growth, and then using a freeze-drier to recover them.  As far as I know, there is not a place to freeze-dry materials like this anywhere in Alaska.  Furthermore, my inquiries in Juneau have not come up with a way to even freeze more than a couple of boxes of wet material.  There are refrigerated containers that could be rented from various barge companies, but only if one is available.  Apparently, in the summer all of them are booked solid with shipments of fresh fish and beer from the Alaskan Brewery.  Juneau is not on the road system.  A lot of towns in Alaska are not on the road system.  Is in-situ dehumidification our answer?  My understanding is that the method uses a large truck to suck moist air out of an interior space using big flexible hoses, dehumidifies it in the vehicle, and then pumps the air back in over and over until the entire space and everything in it is dry.  Is this method possible for remote places in Alaska?  Could we set up something where the guts of the operation could be flown in and rigged up anywhere?  That would be tremendous.  Maybe someone with BMS-CAT or another one of the major disaster response service providers might be willing to work with us on this…am I crazy to hope for this?


4 Responses to Top 10 Projects: January 2009

  1. Paola López says:

    Hi!, I’m Paola López, student of conservation and restoration of cultural heritage in Colombia. Recently I began to study the deterioration of underwater metal objects in the institution Terra Firme and I’m wondering if you could help me with one problem…well, one of the objects that they found (a spoon from the XVIII-XIX century) has a uniform black and dark purple layer with some orange and green stains of corrosion products. Usually, to identified the metal you make chemical or instrumental analysis, but in this moment we cannot practice neither. Could you please help me trying to identify the metal, based in the color of the corrosion products? I ppreciate your attention and time, Thanks in advance.
    PD: The brush that is on the photo (SHIPWRECK ITEMS FROM THE TORRENT)looks like one that was found recently in Cartagena de Indias.

  2. ellencarrlee says:

    Hi Paola!
    This would be a complete guess, since I have not even seen pictures, but this is what I first thought of…sometimes silver plated items have a purplish-black corrosion layer, while silver items that are not plated lack the purplish coloration. Green corrosion products in general make me think of copper. So I wonder if your spoon might be a silver plated copper alloy? I am not sure if silver plating fits into the technologies known to exist for your site. Is that helpful? best wishes,

  3. Helen Alten says:

    Big rolling shelving that can withstand a lot of weight:

    I found great chromed wire shelving at the local hardware store (Lowe’s). It comes in all sizes and widths and withstands many, many pounds. I used it for an archives rehousing project nearly 10 years ago. Since then have used it in a number of smaller museums, in my home lab, and also am proposing it for a geology museum. See:

    Hope it helps.

  4. ellencarrlee says:

    The problem with food places, hotels, groceries etc is that they have their own requirements for the space, plus the issue of storing food there (and the mold thing makes them nervous.) We did successfully rent a freezer truck from the barge company for last year’s archives flood. Luckily, it was not full of fish or Alaskan Amber! When I had contacted them ahead of time, they said they could not commit to having anything available in the summer because of the demands of those two products…

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