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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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SLAM Project 2015: Foreign Voyagers Section

March 9, 2015

I’ve been posting snapshots if some of the conservation work ahead for 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. The interpretive area addressed by this post is called “Sails on the Horizon: Foreign Voyagers in Native Alaska.”  Many of the items in it are maps and prints about early explorers in the area and what some of the first encounters were like between Europeans and Alaska Natives.  Because there are not a lot of conservation treatments needed in this section, I’m going to include images of the voyage between the different locations in downtown Juneau that conservators will be working this summer, since I will have 3 graduate conservation students voyaging here to work with me and I bet they would like a glimpse (more on them later)…

Paper conservator Karen Zukor came up in January to consult with us.  Here she is explaining the issues with an artwork.  L to R curator Steve Henrikson,exhibit curator Jackie Manning, back of my head, exhibit designer Aaron Elmore, exhibit coordinator Paul Gardinier, and Karen Zukor.

Paper conservator Karen Zukor came up in January to consult with us. Here she is explaining the issues with an artwork. L to R curator Steve Henrikson, exhibit curator Jackie Manning, back of my head, exhibit designer Aaron Elmore, exhibit coordinator Paul Gardinier, and Karen Zukor.  Some Wonderwall specimens in foreground.  More on that later!

V-A-144 this image of the disaster at Lituya Bay was collected by Governor Heintzleman in France.  It has some staining and mat issues that will require treatment.  This is the image Karen was discussing in the previous pic.

V-A-144 this image of the disaster at Lituya Bay was collected by Governor Heintzleman in France. It has some staining and mat issues that will require treatment. This is the image Karen was discussing in the previous pic.

95-37-4-3 chest Sometimes called a Russian Chest or a Chinese Chest, these camphorwood chests covered with painted leather tacked down with brass tacks were part of early trade and found now in many Alaskan museum collections.  They almost always have the kind of damage seen here.

95-37-4-3 chest Sometimes called a Russian Chest or a Chinese Chest, these camphorwood chests covered with painted leather tacked down with brass tacks were part of early trade and found now in many Alaskan museum collections. They almost always have the kind of damage seen here.

Now for the walking tour! This is my desk in the State Office Building (folks here call it the SOB and they don't even snicker).

Now for the walking tour! This is my desk in the State Office Building (folks here call it the SOB and they don’t even snicker).

This is the front section of my temporary lab space.  It is an alternately exploding and collapsing universe of clutter.  It will be tidier when interns come...for a while.

This is the front section of my temporary lab space. It is an alternately exploding and collapsing universe of clutter. It will be tidier when interns come…for a while.

This is the back section of the temporary lab space, with a sink and a lot of supplies.  All those totes are from the 1000+ shipwreck artifacts we finished up last summer...

This is the back section of the temporary lab space, with a sink and a lot of supplies. All those totes are from the 1000+ shipwreck artifacts we finished up last summer…

This is the SOB atrium, where folks can get coffee, snacks, and free wifi.  That Haida totem pole by Dwight Wallace is in the museum collections (II-B-1632) but is not moving.

This is the SOB atrium, where folks can get coffee, snacks, and free wifi. That Haida totem pole by Dwight Wallace is in the museum collections (II-B-1632) but is not moving.

That organ under cover and its pipes in the chamber are in the museum collections too (III-O-688) but not moving.  You can hear it played live most Fridays over the lunch hour.

That organ under cover and its pipes in the chamber are in the museum collections too (III-O-688) but not moving. You can hear it played live most Fridays over the lunch hour.

This is the P2 level entrance of the SOB, where we exit to head over to the Vault.

This is the P2 level entrance of the SOB, where we exit to head over to the Vault.

As you leave the SOB, you see Bullwinkles, which is great for after work pizza, popcorn and a picher with co-workers.  Next door is the Twilight Café, which has my favorite Americano in town and a divine pork adobo burrito.  We cut across this parking lot to go to the Vault.

As you leave the SOB, you see Bullwinkle’s, which is great for after work pizza, popcorn and a pitcher with co-workers. Next door is the Twilight Café, which has my favorite Americano in town and a divine pork adobo burrito. We cut across this parking lot to go toward the Vault.

Here is the site of the new building as it looks on a rainy Thursday, March 5, 2015.  The weather may at times be that lousy this summer, but hopefully there will be sunny days, too.

Here is the site of the new building as it looks on a rainy Thursday, March 5, 2015. The weather may at times be that lousy this summer, but hopefully there will be sunny days, too.

This is the side of the building, and right around where the blue tarps are is the future conservation lab area.

This is the side of the building, and right around where the blue tarps are is the future conservation lab area.

Oops, wait, turn around!  Some orientation.  The tallest building in the background, behind the blue and yellowish one, is the SOB.  The blue one on the hill is the fisherman's lobbyist building.  And the reddish orange one is my house!

Oops, wait, turn around! Some orientation. The tallest building in the background, behind the blue and yellowish one, is the SOB. The blue one on the hill is the fisherman’s lobbyist building. And the reddish orange one is my house!

There's the bus, it stops several places near the site.  And the building with the blue stripes is Thibodeau's, which has a convenience store for sandwiches and coffee and friendly banter with Henry.

There’s the bus, it stops several places near the site. And the building with the blue stripes is Thibodeau’s, which has a convenience store for sandwiches and coffee and friendly banter with Henry.

If you cut between Thibodeau's and the Driftwood hotel, there's the Sandpiper Café, great breakfast and tasty lunch...especially the exotic burgers and waffle cut fries...

If you cut between Thibodeau’s and the Driftwood hotel, there’s the Sandpiper Café, great breakfast and tasty lunch…especially the exotic burgers and waffle cut fries…

Just past the Sandpiper you'll see the Vault, the completed section of the SLAM building that houses our collections.  We need PPE to get on site, including a hard hat, orange vest, goggles, and sturdy shoes.

Just past the Sandpiper a bit you’ll see the Vault, the completed section of the SLAM building that houses our collections. We need PPE to get on site, including a hard hat, orange vest, goggles, and sturdy shoes.

We enter the Vault through the exhibits shop, which is still being set up.

We enter the Vault through the exhibits shop, which is still being set up.

This is the metals section of the shop, where a LOT of mountmaking is going to be happening this summer.  It just started in earnest last week!

This is the metals section of the shop, where a LOT of mount making is going to be happening this summer. It just started in earnest last week!

Here's the Collections Processing Room (CPR) where the layouts, photography, and incoming objects are dealt with.

Here’s the Collections Processing Room (CPR) where the layouts, photography, and incoming objects are dealt with.

Eventually when we are allowed to have workstations in the Vault this will be the office of Andrew Washburn.  In the meantime, he has generously offered to let the conservation team use the space.  Obviously I have to prepare it a bit...things are in flux.

Eventually when we are allowed to have workstations in the Vault this will be the office of Andrew Washburn. In the meantime, he has generously offered to let the conservation team use the space. Obviously I have to prepare it a bit…things are in flux.

This is a view through the vault through the shop through all the door that must be opened to give access to the loading dock.  This is how we brought in the umiak (the walrus skin whaling boat)

This is a view through the collections storage part of the vault through the shop through all the doors that must be opened to give access to the loading dock. This is how we brought in the umiak (the walrus skin whaling boat)