2020 Review: The Good Things

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.

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