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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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



SLAM Project 2015: Russian America Section

February 24, 2015

Here’s a snapshot of some of the conservation work ahead for the Russian America section of our upcoming new exhibits.  The Alaska State Library Archives and Museum (SLAM) project is in the construction phase, with opening of the new building planned for June 2016.  There are approximately 22 interpretive areas, around 90 exhibit cases, and roughly 2,500 objects. As I write this, we are beginning the ninth physical layout.

This important flag was thought to fly over Sitka during the transfer ceremony between the Russians and the Americans in 1867. ASM III-O-495

This important flag was thought to fly over Sitka during the transfer ceremony between the Russians and the Americans in 1867. ASM III-O-495

The wool of the flag sheds readily, and is rather delicate.

The wool of the flag sheds readily, and is rather delicate.

Records suggest the flag was stitched down to a support fabric of linen some time in the 1930s.  These stitches are not sufficient to allow the flag to be displayed at an incline as we would like, so some additional couching stitches will need to be added in many locations.

Records suggest the flag was stitched down to a support fabric of linen some time in the 1930s. These stitches are not sufficient to allow the flag to be displayed at an incline as we would like, so some additional couching stitches will need to be added in many locations.

This bust of William Seward by Chauncey Bradley Ives has long been in the entry to the Alaska State Library's Historical Collection, but will now help interpret Alaska's political history.  The stone is shockingly grimy.

This bust of William Seward by Chauncey Bradley Ives has long been in the entry to the Alaska State Library’s Historical Collection, but will now help interpret Alaska’s political history. The stone is shockingly grimy.

Many of the metals in the Russian America section have corrosion, polishing residues, failing lacquers, and other issues common to historic metals.  This samovar, ASM III-R-319, has a few of these issues on some components.

Many of the metals in the Russian America section have corrosion, polishing residues, failing lacquers, and other issues common to historic metals. This samovar, ASM III-R-319, has a few of these issues on some components.

This poor little Unangan (Aleut) kayaker has quite a few condition issues.  His lead hands are corroding, his visor has a broken off tip, the gutskin parka he is wearing has some old insect damage, and he is heavily soiled.  ASM II-F-272.

This poor little Unangan (Aleut) kayaker has quite a few condition issues. His lead hands are corroding, his visor has a broken off tip, the gutskin parka he is wearing has some old insect damage, and he is heavily soiled. ASM II-F-272.

Top 10 Projects: 2014

November 18, 2014


Eagle pedicure QP card

Eagle pedicure QP card

2013 was packed!  This is the most delayed I’ve ever posted a Top Ten list yet…yikes!  Most of this work is completed, but some of it is still in stream.  Our eagle beaks and feet have not quite all been treated, but thanks to our custom QP card we now know the proper color range.  These eagles, the snack food store, the dump, and dozens of live bald eagles are all within a small radius of space here in Juneau…coincidence?


Lid of Edenshaw Compote SJ II-B-11

Lid of Edenshaw Compote SJ II-B-11

Bottom section of Edenshaw Compote SJ I-B-11

Bottom section of Edenshaw Compote SJ I-B-11

Several important pieces of argillite carving by Charles Edenshaw safely returned to Alaska from a loan to the Vancouver Art Gallery for their fabulous exhibition on the Haida master artist.  I’d love to write this up more in-depth soon…from a conservator’s point of view, argillite is unpredictable, fragile, and complicated to repair.  Allowing these large heavy pieces to travel made me nervous, and even more so when my favorite solution wouldn’t fit the budget.  As a compromise, the VAG sent Dwight Koss and Rory Gylander to pack and help courier the pieces.  They did a splendid job, the artworks were made more accessible to the source community via exhibition and catalog, and back again safe and sound.


storage supports bread racks

Many months of packing!  Check the index for my other blog posts about artifact storage solutions…


Moving the 2-D art collection

Moving the 2-D art collection

How did we do it?  If you were at the Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) conference in San Francisco this year, you got to see the PowerPoint.  In a nutshell, Scott Carrlee wrote an IMLS Museums for America grant to bring dozens of museum professionals from across Alaska to come help us pack and move as a hands-on training and networking opportunity.  Win-win for everyone.  We had a six-week window to move about 40,000 objects, and utilized the Incident Command System to coordinate the effort.  The collections were moved into the new vault (in the midst of a construction zone) through a tunnel built of shipping containers.  One of the final objects to move was a 35-foot walrus skin boat.  You can see photos and read the story in the Juneau Empire: Airborne Umiak Sails Over Museum.


Example of Neo-Classical Brutalism, 1967-2014

Example of Neo-Classical Brutalism, 1967-2014

…you can breathe a bittersweet sigh of relief knowing all the collections were removed just a few short weeks ago.  This image shows the old building coming down at the same time the new one is being erected.  To the left of the image is the storage vault, already completed with the artifacts securely inside.  Goodbye old building, we will miss you!


The amazing Lisa Imamura

The amazing Lisa Imamura

…and Lisa Imamura gets into conservation grad school at Queen’s!  With a Master’s degree in geology already in her back pocket, Lisa decided she’d prefer a career in conservation to a PhD in geology and began volunteering in the conservation department at the Alaska State Museum scrubbing rusty dirty wet shipwreck material.  That was back in late 2012.  She wore more hats in several areas of the museum (some of them even paid!) and she was a core member of the museum move team.  A total dynamo.  Towards the end, we let her work on picking garish paint off eagle feet.  She’s gonna be embarrassed I posted this, but Lisa take heart!  I chose a picture with a cute outfit and not your shipwreck-scrubbing gear!


29Aug2014 Gwen wallpaper

Gwen Manthey solves the wet silk wallpaper problem


Gwen Manthey takes on the polar bear tongue

Gwen Manthey takes on the polar bear tongue

What would you do, intrepid objects conservator, with two bolts of stinky, hundred-year-old shipwrecked silk wall covering with a painted floral design that just wanted to rub off on your fingers??  Lose sleep for many nights?  Check!  Write to conservation listserves and colleagues?  Check!  Wish it were someone else’s nightmare?  Double check.  Did I mention our building was about to be torn down??  Thankfully, the Alaska State Office of History and Archaeology helped us out with some funding to bring paintings conservator Gwen Manthey, who totally solved the problem.  Plus she volunteered some time to help us out with a few other issues, like knocking back a garishly pink polar bear tongue.  You can bet I want to bring her back for install time…


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Tom McClintock wedged between an eagle and a vintage snow machine

UCLA/ Getty graduate conservation student Tom McClintock took on a pile of motley tasks in his six weeks at the Alaska State Museum this summer, including eagles, basketry hats, shipwrecked carpenter’s polka dot pajamas, and moving many artifacts ranging from fine art to a large fishing boat.  In this challenging transition time, Tom’s skills, flexibility, and roll-with-it attitude were the perfect fit.  He even did dogsitting, bread baking and blueberry jam making for my boss’s boss’s boss.  How’s that for making the conservation department look good??  Thanks Tom!


Aaron Elmore, Fran Ritchie, and Jackie Manning free a polar bear from a 1970s era exhibit mount

Aaron Elmore, Fran Ritchie, and Jackie Manning free a polar bear from a 1970s era exhibit mount

Conservator Fran Ritchie returned to Alaska this summer as part of a Rasmuson Foundation grant to help several institutions with taxidermy issues.  (Check her work on a leatherback turtle in Cordova!) It was Fran who determined the treatment protocol for our seven eagles, advised on numerous specimens, and assisted with liberating several creatures from hideous old mounts.  Why all the interest in natural history, you ask?


Antlers for acquisition delivered to the museum in the Carrlee's trusty Ford Transit Connect.

Antlers for acquisition delivered to the museum in the Carrlee’s trusty Ford Transit Connect.

One of the exhibits designed for the new museum is the Wonderwall, a giant glass arch over one of the gallery entrances that will amaze visitors with an array of spectacular specimens from the collection.  Of course, this section of the museum is a special favorite of mine…


Conservator Scott Carrlee replaces an element from David Mollett's "Collection Cabinet" (ASM 2005-29-1) after consultation with the artist in 2006.

Conservator Scott Carrlee replaces an element from David Mollett’s “Collection Cabinet” (ASM 2005-29-1) after consultation with the artist in 2006.

While a tremendous amount of our time is directed at the new building, we are thinking ahead as well.  I co-presented a paper about artist intent with Sheldon Jackson Museum curator Jackie Fernandez at the Museums Alaska conference in Seward AK this fall.  Many Alaskan museums have been actively collecting contemporary artwork, thanks the generosity of the Rasmuson Foundation Art Acquisition Initiative.  Jackie interfaces quite a bit with artists who do residencies at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, and she also helps select contemporary Alaskan art to add to the collection.  As part of the Alaska State Museums, that collection falls under our conservation duties.  We are thinking of ways to proactively collect artist intent information about preservation and exhibition of these works.  Since Alaskan museums often collect works from the same artist, it would be great to have a mechanism to share this information.

Top 10 Projects: March 2013

March 28, 2013

Egads!  This list gets later every year!  And I have not posted on the blog in a full year.  Time flies indeed.  Here’s what’s up with me and my conservation world here in Juneau, Alaska…


Construction has begun on our new storage vault for the new Alaska State Library Archives and Museum building (SLAM).  They are making the storage vault first (walls are going up right now!) and we are getting ready to move all 30,000+items in the collection and on exhibit out of the building beginning March of next year.  And we have only SIX WEEKS to move everything out.  This is because they need to tear down our building to make way for the rest of the new structure.  Our museum has a staff of only eleven people, so it is going to be an interesting operation to move everything to the new storage vault safely.  To help visualize the logistics, I used my son’s Legos to create a model…

Lego model of collection move logistics

Lego model of collection move logistics


Did I mention they are going to bust a hole in the basement wall of the museum and create a tunnel to the new storage vault?  Guess whose conservation lab is in the way?  So I will be moving my lab into temporary quarters in the next few months.  This lab has been here since 1976 and I have a LOT of accumulated goodness to move.  Not to mention getting set up in a new temporary space for the next two or three years.  The new exhibits are supposed to open in May of 2016, and of course new exhibits have lots of conservation needs.  Here’s hoping the temporary lab can handle the workflow.

Shipwreck garments drying in lab

Shipwreck garments drying in lab


Mining is an important part of the history of Alaska, and we were lucky to receive a donation of an original locomotive from the heyday of Juneau hard rock gold operations.  It was donated by the California State Railroad Museum a few years ago.  It had been significantly altered during its time with the Santa Cruz Cement Company and needs significant restoration, but will be an important part of the new exhibit galleries.

Baldwin locomotive in storage

Baldwin locomotive in storage


Our 3rd order Fresnel lighthouse lens is not in bad shape, but it wil be a delicate operation to move it.  Formerly located within Cape Spencer Light Station in S.E. Alaska from 1925-1974, it was made and constructed by Barbier, Bernard and Turrenne of Paris.

Large, heavy, and made of glass

Large, heavy, and made of glass


I continue to chug along on work for a PhD in anthropology, with a focus on the cultural meanings of internal organs of marine mammals.  Those would include organs like stomach, intestine, bladder, and esophagus from animals like seals, walruses, and sea lions.   Yup’ik, Siberian Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), and Aleut (Unangan) cultures all have traditions of making items like rain parkas, sails, windows, containers and drums out of these materials, but they are rarely used today and poorly understood in musuems.  I am hoping to work with Native people to understand the meanings of these materials better.

Roll of bearded seal gut at Cama-i 2013

Roll of bearded seal gut at Cama-i 2013


Just last week (March 21-25) I went to Bethel with my 5-year-old son, Carson, to see the Cama-i dance festival and meet the new director of the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum, Eva Malvich.  I had never been to that part of the state before, and was eager to see if there might be possibilities for collaboration between our two museums as I work on the gutskin project.  It was the most amazing experience to be there…the people were just wonderful and I really look forward to going back.  I am heartened that people do seem interested in this kind of project, and it seems that I might have something I can give back with my knowledge of conservation and museum practices.

Yupiit Piciryarait Museum and Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska

Yupiit Piciryarait Museum and Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska


In order to begin the gutskin project, I need to write three synthesizing papers for my PhD program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  These papers will give me some background helpful to the dissertation, and are meant to be a survey and analysis of what the anthropological literature says about certain topics I ought to develop some expertise in.  The first of them for me will be about material culture.  The next one will be about Alaska Native relationships with marine mammals, and the third will be about practice theory

Beautiful gutskin basket by Elaine Kingeekuk for sale in the Sheldon Jackson Museum gift shop in Sitka, Alaska

Beautiful gutskin basket by Elaine Kingeekuk for sale in the Sheldon Jackson Museum gift shop in Sitka, Alaska


After quite a long haul, I will be presenting a paper at the WOAM conference on the final results of PEG treatments on ancient baskets at the Alaska State Museum.  Dana Senge and I have been working on this topic for quite some time, and will be co-authoring the paper.   WOAM is the acronym for the Internation Council on Museums Conservation Committee working group on Wet Organic Archaeological Materials, and the triennial meeting is in Istanbul, Turkey this year.  My husband Scott Carrlee (also a conservator) and I both had terrific experiences doing conservation fieldwork in Turkey in the 1990’s and are really looking forward to showing our son the joys and pleasures of Turkey.

Ancient spruce root basket during treatment at the Alaska State Museum

Ancient spruce root basket during treatment at the Alaska State Museum


Hoo boy, all the above would be plenty if it were not for the twenty-odd big totes of wet shipwreck materials awaiting treatment in off site storage.  They froze solid last fall while I was in Fairbanks (leave of absence to take coursework for the PhD) and are just now beginning to thaw.  I have thawed out the five most troublesome ones,  I think, and the materials are in an amazing state of preservation.  The wreck was a gold rush era luxury steamship, and we have leather, textiles, ceramic, glass, rubber, tools, jewelry and more.   I’ve dried out two full suits (jacket/ vest/pants) and numerous other garments, very similar to the ones in the 1902 Sears catalog.  My favorite item so far is an amazing doll about 9″ tall that I believe is made of gutta percha.  The doll is over 110 years old, and in remarkably good condition.  I will be putting it in anoxic storage to slow the deterioration of this material.

Doll, circa 1900, made of gutta percha or rubber

Doll, circa 1900, made of gutta percha or rubber


Stay tuned on this one…the Alaska State Museum and its branch in Sitka, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, have loaned several important masterpieces to the Vancouver Art Gallery for a major retrospective exhibition of the argillite masterworks of Haida artist Charles Edenshaw.  The descendants of the artists are involved in the exhibition and catalog, and the artworks will be accessible to many more Haida people than ever before.  However, argillite is a strange material, a carbonaceous shale from a single quarry in Haida Gwaii, the homeland islands of the Haida people.  The quarry no longer produces large pieces, so the number of large artifacts made from argillite are limited.   Argillite is barely stone, and still retains some properties of clay, including being humidity sensitive.  The ability to exapand and contract with changes in humidity is different in different directions due to the bedding plane layers of the material.  When it breaks, the break edges are often crumbly.  One artifact in particular, a large compote, has a diagonal fault line of quartz through its load-bearing pedestal.  After a long and careful decision-making process, musuem staff decided the value of sending the artifacts to be seen by Haida people was worth the substantial risks to the artifact.  I think it was the right decision, but really nerve-wracking for a conservator!

Charles Edenshaw argillite compote

Charles Edenshaw argillite compote

XRF: Why Should We Get One?

November 18, 2011

Scott Carrlee and Ellen Carrlee test an arctic tern specimen for arsenic at the Alaska State Museum

The Alaska State Museum has decided to pursue funding to purchase a portable XRF machine.  I’m typically skeptical of technology and reluctant to commit to learning elaborate and expensive techniques I would rarely use.   But in this case, I think YES we should get one.  Here’s a timeline of the decision-making process and what’s made me come around. 

Bruker handheld XRF analyzer

June 24, 2011  Handheld XRF Workshop at the Pratt Museum in Homer.  Dr. Holly Cusack-McVeigh (curator) had been talking with paper conservator Seth Irwin about her concerns loaning out potentially pesticide-contaminated natural history specimens.  Seth knew that some archaeologists in Fairbanks (Jeff Rasic and Josh Reuther) had been using a Bruker XRF for obsidian studies and geological questions. They helped Holly connect with the Bruker scientific rep, Bruce Kaiser.  Bruce was already coming to Alaska to do a training for the Fairbanks archaeologists, and Holly sweet-talked Bruce into an extra training in Homer, with promises of scenic beauty and fish dinner.  The Fairbanks archaeologists attended the Homer training too, and so did Scott Carrlee (Alaska State Museum outreach curator, trained as a conservator) who happened to be doing a survey in Seldovia at that time.  After the training, Bruce Kaiser offered to send the XRF to Alaska on loan.  Smart move, Dr. Kaiser.

July 29, 2011 The XRF arrived at the ASM on loan, where Crista Pack was still doing her summer internship.  As a conservation grad student from the U Delaware/ Winterthur program, Crista had already had some XRF training with Bruce Kaiser.  She was doing a project for the ASM, “What’s That White Stuff?” and helped us kick the tires and take it for a test drive.

Alaska State Museum collection II-A-77 Siberian Yupik pipe from St. Lawrence Island

August 9, 2011  One artifact in particular, a leather tobacco pouch attached to a pipe, brought home to me the utility of the XRF.  I wanted to know if the white crytals on the leather were from lead corrosion that was prevalent on  many of the pipe bowls in the drawer, or perhaps a fatty bloom from a long-ago leather dressing, or maybe arsenic to prevent insect infestation.  What would the XRF say?  It told us we did not have arsenic or lead, but we did have a significant amount of potassium, which made me think about potash in the tobacco mixture the bag would have carried.   This kind of info is really helpful for treatment decisions and handling protocols as well as artifact interpretation, and the XRF was so much faster than the other techniques I know of…without sampling!  I could test for lead with plumtesmo papers, and test for arsenic using potassium hydroxide/ hydrochloric acid/ zinc with mercury bromide test papers…but just those two tests would have taken me more than an hour, and I still would not have known about the potassium.  And really, I probably would not have occasion to spend so much time determining “what’s that white stuff” for this artifact.  But if it is quick like this, there are so many more questions I am able to pursue.

September 2-3, 2011  In addition to analysis like pesticide testing (the arctic tern had arsenic), pigment examination (a mysterious atl atl had mercury in the red pigment, suggesting cinnabar which would be appropriate for an authentic old throwing board), material identification (a woody-looking fiber contained sulfur, suggesting baleen instead of a plant), looking at potential exhibit and storage materials (vulcanized rubber gaskets), and “what’s that white stuff”, we managed to pull off some educational programming. We went on the radio and in the newspaper to promote a “science gun” public program, inviting the public to bring a small metal artifact to the museum for testing.  I cobbled together a cheat sheet of various metal alloys and the mineral content of certain gemstones, and we looked at over 100 artifacts from people in the community, right there in our exhibition gallery.  The conversations were really dynamic and engaging, and we were using the XRF in conjunction with a couple of other techniques, like UV light to see fluorescence of certain gemstones.

Scott describing a silver alloy during the public program.

September 6, 2011 Just before we packed the machine up to send to Monica Shah at the Anchorage Museum, a group of high school students came to the conservation lab for some science-meets-art demos.  We chatted about the periodic table, elements, valence electrons, and the like…then used the XRF on various student bling and discussed the results. 

No, we didn't actually use this event notice. It was a joke from Paul and Jackie in our exhibits department...

September 26, 2011 Several of us attended another training on the way home from the Museums Alaska conference. For Monica Shah (head of collections and conservation at the Anchorage Museum), Scott Carrlee, and Holly Cusack-McVeigh, it was their second training. It was my first, and I was thrilled to get some of my questions answered after taking the XRF for a spin back in Juneau with Scott and Crista.  Monica had the loaner XRF at this time, and it was heading to Holly next.  We encouraged Holly to try the public program angle we had done in Juneau, and gave her my “cheat sheets”.  Upon my return from the training, I wrote the following for the Alaska State Museum Bulletin:

“Ellen Carrlee and Scott Carrlee attended a day of XRF training September 26, 2011 at the Anchorage Museum at the invitation of Head of Collections/ Conservator Monica Shah.  They were joined Holly Cusack-McVeigh and Bill Walker from the Pratt Museum in Homer.  The training was led by Dr. Bruce Kaiser, a name well-known in museums and universities for connecting institutions with handheld X-ray fluorescence  technology provided by the company Bruker AXS.  One of these “science guns” has been traveling between the Alaska State Museum, the Anchorage Museum and the Pratt Museum, on loan from Bruker.  The device shoots photons (or low-energy X-rays) at a sample, analyzing them non-destructively by measuring the movement of electrons.  After a few seconds, a graph of peaks appears on the computer screen and the software helps identify which elements are present in the sample.  Knowledge of physics and an understanding of how the machine works greatly enhance the interpretation of the data.   Museums worldwide have been using XRF extensively in recent years to explore questions of alloy compositions of metal artifacts , pesticide contamination on ethnographic and natural history collections, pigment identification , and other questions that can investigated with elemental analysis. We’ll keep you posted as we discover the potential benefits offered for Alaskan collections.”

Some of the white powder that was making Holly nervous

October 21, 2011  The Pratt Museum in Homer hosted a free evening public program called “Trinkets or Treasures?”  Holly says it was huge success and great fun for staff and visitors alike.  During the time she had the machine, Holly focused on arsenic testing of taxidermy.  Now she is turning her attention toward possible organic pesticides, but the pile of work has been narrowed down from the first round of XRF testing.  She no longer feels bad about turning a school down for a loan of puffins now that she knows for certain they have arsenic on them.  She tells me that as user-friendly as the instrument is, she knows there is even more information to be pulled from the data that she isn’t trained enough to extract yet.  I have that same feeling…we are getting amazing info, but it is the tip of the iceberg.  I also agree with Holly in her observation that the XRF is so helpful for collections research not just in answering questions we already have (Is this really silver? Is there arsenic here?) but also in sparking new questions we never would have thought of before. Holly sent the loaner XRF over to State Archaeologist Dave McMahan.  He and Dr. Charles Holmes have been using it to examine glass trade beads and glazes on ceramics.  I believe the touring XRF is now back with Bruker.

November 18, 2011  Scott and I are working on a grant proposal to buy the XRF.  Not only could we use it for public outreach and researching our own collection, but Scott could take it out on site visits to museums and cultural centers statewide and loan it out to institutions with staff who have had XRF training.  Holly suggests we might be able to have an XRF training workshop at the next Museums Alaska conference to increase the number of museums in Alaska who could get the XRF on loan from the Alaska State Museum.  As I write this, Scott Carrlee is soliciting letters of support for the grant.  I’ll keep you posted if we get it!

How to Mount a Totem Pole

October 11, 2011

Here are some examples of totem pole mounting techniques that I have seen in Southeast Alaska.  For details about rigging and equipment, as well as the most reasonable estimate I have of totem pole weight, see How to Take Down a Totem Pole.  The strongback, or a supplementary post of metal or wood, is the way both new carvings and restored older ones are typically installed today.  The method is especially effective for the old poles, as they often have rot, insect infestation, or other instability at the base.  This damage is usually caused by installing the totem pole directly in the ground or into concrete, where it suffers from moisture ingress (remember that southeast Alaska is a temperate rainforest) and is vulnerable to insects. 

Rot at base from extended exposure to moisture

Evidence of moisture retention at base from contact with the ground

Carpenter ant damage to totem pole that had rot from contact with moist ground.


Close-up of damage from carpenter ants. These creatures don't attack sound wood, only wood that has areas of rot.


The strongback helps the pole resist lateral loads, such as winds, but is not expected to support the totem pole’s weight.  This is typically done with wooden spacers between the pole and a concrete pad, or by a special metal shelf welded onto the strongback near the base.  Totem poles are typically attached to the strongback through bolts that extend to the face of the pole.

Sometimes bolt heads are left exposed on the front of the carving.


Sometimes the hardware is recessed below the surface of the wood.


most often, the bolts are recessed and the holes are covered over with wooden plugs


Details on materials specifications and hardware are not provided here, as these choices are guided by the particulars of each totem pole and its desired location.  Considerations of weight, height, wind load, weather, limitations of access and so on require a custom solution for each pole. Installation of a totem pole usually involves a team of skilled individuals, as faulty installation can result in injury, damage to the pole, or damage to property.  The following cases are provided as examples and a springboard for discussion of ideas among your team.


Western Red Cedar, approx 35 feet tall, 83” circumference at the base. 3,400 lbs as weighed by crane in 2008.

Carved by John Wallace in 1940, this pole is now located at the corner of 4th and Main at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum (collection number 84.19.001).  It was mounted at this location following a move from a nearby park in 1994 and re-mounted again following treatment in 2008, both times using a steel strongback with bolts extending to the front and bolt holes covered with wooden plugs.

Four Story Totem Pole, Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

The strongback


Base of strongback extends into concrete underground.


A shelf on the strongback holds the totem pole clear of the ground



Western Red Cedar, approx 40 feet tall.  Documentation suggests the pole weighs around 2,500 lbs.

Carved by Nathan Jackson (assisted by Steve Brown) in 1980, this pole is located at Centennial Hall in downtown Juneau and is part of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum collection (81.01.032).  The mounting currently in place was installed in 1983 on mounts installed by Triplette Construction Company.  The companion totem pole, the Auk Tribe Pole (81.01.033) was moved inside the atrium of the Juneau-Douglas High School in 2003 due to flaws in the original wood, resulting instability, and excessive weathering.

Wooshkeetaan Pole at Centennial Hall in Juneau


Strongback behind Wooshkeetaan pole


Base of the strongback attached to concrete pad.


A piece of pressure-treated lumber acts as a spacer between the pole and the concrete pad.


Rubber spacers were used in the gap between the steel mount and the curved geometry at the back of the pole.



Western Red Cedar, approx 26 feet tall

Carved by Tommy Jimmie Sr., Edward Kunz Sr., Edward Kunz Jr., and William Smith in 1977, these poles are located on Willoughby Avenue and appear to be the property of the Tlingit-Haida Regional Authority.  The mounting in place looks to be original.

Raven and Eagle Poles on Willoughby Avenue in Juneau.


Large steel pipe support. Wooden blocks allow pole to rest on top of steel pipe


The bolt solution here involves U-shaped lengths of steel all-thread, bolted from the front.

Daylight is easily seen under the pole, kept out of contact with the wet ground


The location of bolt holes in the pupils of the eyes suggests the mount solution was designed from the start. The poles are missing a few of the wooden plugs that cover the bolt holes.


Yellow Cedar (considered unusual) 31 ½ feet tall, 21 ½” wide at base, 71” wingspan at top. 

Carved by and Charles Tagook and William N. Brown in 1939-40, the totem pole stands outside the Governor’s Mansion on Calhoun Avenue in Juneau.  The pole is part of the property, but the Alaska State Museum assists in its care.  It was mounted using a galvanized steel street light pole and brackets in 1997 during a treatment led by conservator Ron Sheetz.  The re-mounting mechanism was designed by George McCurry, Southeast Region Maintenance Manager for the Department of Transportation.  The mounting system involves brackets attached to the back of the totem pole that bolt together with brackets on the street light pole.  The pole was taken down briefly in spring 2011 to protect it from house renovation work and re-installed successfully the following autumn.

Totem Pole at Governor's Residence in Juneau (and me with Ron Sheetz!)


Commercial galvanized street light pole as strongback


Bolt on the streetlight pole


Bracket used to join totem pole to lightpost strongback


Here you can see the shelf that takes the weight off the brackets and bolts


Another view of the base when the pole was taken down for house renovations


Side view of the little shelf welded onto the strongback


Front view of the little shelf holding the pole off the ground


Pole base clears ground well and the foliage is kept trimmed back


Pole on cribbing ready to be reinstalled


Padded to protect the pole from the strap before lifting


Using a sturdy board to prevent the pole from rolling during lifting


Guiding the base of the pole to prevent spinning and swinging during installation


Be sure to have a plan for getting the hook off again...



Western Red Cedar. 14 feet tall, 23” diameter, 19” deep

Carved by Amos Wallace in 1967, this pole was installed around 1976 at the public library on Calhoun Avenue in Juneau. That site is now the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, and pole is part of its collection (84.18.001).  It was mounted directly in the ground in the 1976 and remounted in 2004 using an aluminum strongback designed by Banghart and Associates.   While steel can be smaller in cross-section for a given project than aluminum, the latter is easier to manipulate using standard woodworking tools and offers more options on site for a good fit. The bolts are stainless steel.

Harnessing the Atom, Juneau-Douglas City Museum


Aluminum mount on back


Aluminum mount, base area


Base raised off the ground to prevent rot


The totem poles in the park have a varied history.  Some were collected by Governor Brady around 1901-1903.  Many are replica carvings, particularly from the Civilian Conservation Corps work of the 1930’s but some reproduction poles from the 1970’s as well. The park is part of the National Parks Service, and in the 1980’s there was concern about the deteriorating condition of the poles.  Ron Sheetz, the furniture conservator who was in town to finish the work on the Russian Bishop’s House (also NPS) was called over to take a look.  Considerable preservation work was done to many poles in 1991 by Al Levitan, Ron Sheetz and others in conjunction with a totem pole preservation conference.  The most common method is a supplementary wooden post made from a yellow cedar log attached in the concavity behind the original pole.  This post holds the original up above ground level, and is itself buried in the ground.  This method was apparently used in earlier preservation efforts and can be seen as a mounting technique on many poles throughout Southeast Alaska.  Sometimes a cedar box was built around the support.

Supplementary post of wood used to support main totem pole


Back view of a totem pole at Sitka National Historical Park



Approximately 21 feet tall and thought to weigh around 800 lbs (underestimated?)

The Friendship Pole was carved around 1959 at the Alaska Indian Arts Center in Haines as a commission by the Department of Corrections.  Museum records indicate the carver was Leo Jacobs.  It was installed in the atrium of the Dimond Courthouse building in 1976.  It is now part of the Alaska State Museum collection (II-B-1679). Following new Homeland Security measures, the pole was moved out of the way of security screening equipment in 2002.  It has a custom bracket system to attach it to the structural elements of the atrium, designed by Banghart and Associates.

Friendship Pole at the Dimond Courthouse, Juneau


Custom mounting bracket to structural window mullions


Side view of the bracket


Western Red Cedar. Approx. 38 feet tall, base 4 feet in diameter.  Thought to be 2,500 lbs. though estimates vary widely in the written reports. 

Carved in Sukkwan in the 1880’s by a Haida carver whose name is not the museum records.  Installed indoors in the atrium of the State Office Building in downtown Juneau in 1977.  It is part of the Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1632.  The pole has a hollowed out back and compromised structure, which was reinforced with wood from the inside when mounted indoors, and the main support for the pole is given by large steel straps around the exterior of the pole that are bolted to the wall.  Straps like this would not be an ideal solution outdoors, as you would get very different weathering, deterioration, and biological growth in the locations of the straps.

Old Witch Pole, State Office Building, JuneauMetal strap around bottom of pole


Straps around upper areas of the pole


Peek between pole and wall to see attachment points


NOTE: How much does a totem pole weigh, anyway?  I’ve noticed the math doesn’t quite seem consistent from pole to pole in the documentation.  I am suspicious of dimensional estimates and weights of the poles that I read in the files unless more elaboration is provided, particularly info from the designer of the mount.  The best resource I have to date is the description of the weight of the YaxTe Hit pole described in How To Take Down A Totem Pole.

Pondering the Cleaning of Ethnographic Gutskin

June 12, 2010

Internal organ skins of marine mammals continues to be an area I find interesting and under-explored in the conservation literature.  Not long ago, several gutskin items came into the collection at the Alaska State Museum: two gutskin bags and one round hat.  The size of the skin strips and their physical appearance resembled materials often identified on artifacts as seal intestine.

Alaska State Museum 2008-10-1

The underside of the hat, both images are before treatment

The hat was recognized by the curator, Steve Henrikson, as quite special.  While made of traditional Alaska Native materials, it was a design typically seen in sailor’s caps such as those used by Russian and European seafarers.  Several hats of this kind can be found in one of my FAVORITE books, The Etholén Collection, which has many wonderful photos and descriptions of Alaskan artifacts in the National Museum of Finland.  The hats similar to this one are attributed to the Aleut.  Our hat had dyed wool tufts and remnants of feathers, as well as red and blue paint on the welting sewn into the seams.

The hat was among recent acquisitions selected for the summer 2010 Alaska State Museum exhibition “From Gift to Gallery.”  I recalled that in fall 2009, our intern Lauren Horelick noted that humidifying seemed to help release dirt.  She observed this during treatment of a pair of Aleut or Alutiiq boots made from a marine mammal internal organ tissue, possibly sea lion esophagus.  

Lauren Horelick working on boots from the Sheldon Jackson Museum collection, 2008-6-1

Lauren wrote in her report,  “After exhausting dry cleaning methods, aqueous cleaning began experimentally with distilled water on cotton swabs. Initially this did not appear to be an effective method, producing very minimal soiling on the swab. Perhaps this was due to a lack of applied pressure. However, after the boots were humidified (step 6) the use of a cotton swab and distilled water removed a significant amount of dirt. A 16-ounce can was eventually filled with completely blackened swabs after both boots were surface cleaned along the interior and exterior.  It is possible that the process of humidification swelled and loosened the dirt from the surface of the legging material. Humidity may have also relaxed the fibers sufficiently to release the soiling. The cleaning appeared to bring a more luminous quality to the boots with an overall brighter yellow color.”

Lauren manipulating the skin of the boot

After surface cleaning the hat with dry techniques, we undertook overall humidification of the hat in a humidity chamber.  I brought the chamber up to its practical limit of about 80% RH over the course of about four hours.  The method I like to use involves small containers of water with sponges in them to increase surface area, and after a couple of hours I soak a few strips of crumpled acid-free blotter with water and add those to the chamber to speed up the rate that the humidity increases.  The wet items are located below the wire shelf, so cannot come in contact with the object.  I need the object to get pliable, manipulate it and position it within the course of a single work day because I don’t want to leave gut material damp overnight.  The cotton textile lining got very limp, almost damp.  But the gut was not cooperative for very long, and I had a very short working time.  Maybe 10 minutes maximum before it was too stiff to manipulate without risk of new tears.  I wondered if I should have used some solvent for humidification, as sometimes the smaller molecule size of certain solvents is thought to penetrate better during humidification, but I was concerned about the pigments. 

Gutskin hat beginning humidification in the chamber

I inverted the hat and used small clips suspended from a hoop to encourage the rim back into shape.  The wooden clothespins were attached at intervals around the rim over small sections of curved (by curling) blotter paper on the interior and exterior of the rim.  Because the gut started to become brittle again, this was the extent of the re-shaping at the first pass.

First attempt to reshape the rim of the hat

A second overall humidification was repeated in the humidity chamber, following a similar humidification profile.  Put in at 8:30am and removed at 3:30pm, as the rim began to collapse again and take on memory of crumpled shape.  Stuffed out the outer areas of the hat with acid free tissue and inserted a cotton-covered disc of 1” polyethylene foam inside rim to help maintain shape.  The foam was cut smaller than the rim to leave space for strips of curled blotter to be clipped both inside and outside the rim again.  The foam was then placed on a riser so the clips could hang free and their weight could help encourage the rim into position.  A little extra weight was added to one side in order to even out the shape.  I did this with magnets attached to the springs of a few of the clothespins.

Reshaping the hat before wet cleaning

Now comes the interesting part, and I was grateful for the assistance and observations of Aurora Lang during this phase of treatment.  Aurora has a Museums Studies master’s degree, and was volunteering at the museum for a few months before she became the new Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the Cordova Historical Museum.  She and I agreed on our observations about the wet cleaning of gutskin. 

Some of this dirt had come off with a soft brush and a low-suction vacuum, but much still remained on the surface after dry cleaning techniques were done

The sooty dirt was not removed nearly as well with distilled water as it was with saliva.  Warm water works better than room temperature water, but not better than saliva (which also affords more control.)  On a scale of one-to-ten, with 10 being the best, the use of saliva is a 10, warm water is a 7 and cold water is a 3.  Warm water is at least twice as effective as cold water.  Saliva aids in the release of the soot, and repeated rubbing of the area is not needed as extensively it is with water alone.  Swab slides over the surface easier, and it feels a little more lubricated.  When water is used, the rubbing makes crinklier sounds and feels more aggressive.  Biologically, saliva and gut are quite compatible.  To what degree are we benefitting from enzymatic action?  Should we be worried about putting a bit of our own DNA on the surface? 

Lower left area is cleaned, the horizontal area has not yet been cleaned in this image

 Dirt continues to be released with repeated applications of saliva.  The best cleaning happens if you take two steps forward and one step back.  It seems that if you get the gut in one area to seem clean, and then you move on to another area and let the first one dry, more dirt comes to the surface in the first area, showing up as little islands of dirt in the crevices.  Cleaning a small area (approximately 2” x 1”) will take about 3-4 minutes on the first pass, and only about half that amount of time on the second pass which is most effective if done perhaps 2-4 minutes later.  This can be repeated a few times until the swab no longer comes away dirty.  On the first pass, the gut will get very pliable and soft, like pasta or perhaps like seaweed in miso soup.  The texture is delicate and it seems as if it might be punctured easily but we did not have that problem.  On the second pass, perhaps 4 minutes later, the gut feels supple under the swab but not pasta-like as on the first pass.  It is not crinkly and is still semi-humid.  It is in this state that a lot of dirt can be removed from the gut.  After cleaning, the gut has a semi-translucent luminous quality, almost glowing, that it did not have before cleaning.  Feathers and pigments were avoided.  Because we were concerned with the residues of the saliva cleaning, we went over all those areas one last time with cotton swabs dampened in ethanol.

From left-to-right: cleaned with saliva, distilled water, and warm distilled water

For comparison, cleaning was also attempted on the lined gut bag that was also part of this accession.  Since its construction and materials were similar and it came from the same accession, it is assumed that its manufacture and soiling history would be similar.  It was notably more difficult to remove dirt from the un-humidified bag, but cleaning could be done successfully with repeated passes.  More passes were required and dirt did not come off as easily.  From this we felt that perhaps Lauren was right and that our overall humidification of the gut made it easier to clean.

After treatment, top of hat

After treatment, gutskin hat, Alaska State Museum collection 2008-10-1