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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Collections Labeling: Material by Material

November 25, 2011

This is the manual included in a kit I made for a workshop at the Museums Alaska conference in Valdez, September 2011.  The 2011 workshop was funded through a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts.  The kit is designed for small museums with wide-ranging collections with everything from natural history specimens to fine art, where limited staff must wear many hats.  My preferences come from (1) labeling thousands of artifacts while I was a curator at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and (2) providing outreach assistance to museum staff statewide in Alaska who need easy simple solutions to collections management issues.  In general, I follow the paper label technique described by Thomas Braun in JAIC Summer 2007. The text below is from the little manual I enclosed in each kit.  If you want the little manual, just print out this manual for collections labeling , cut it in quarters and staple it together.  The contents of the kit are listed and explained in the posting Collections Labeling: Simple Kit.   Some adhesive choices are described in the posting Collections Labeling: Alternate Adhesive Testing.

Here's a labeling challenge: a box of muskox fur!

The back cover of the manual includes these questions to help determine the best labeling technique:

1. Will applying this label cause damage such as new holes or dissolving the surface?

2. Will future removal of this label cause damage?

3. Will the labeling materials run, fade, abrade, corrode or age in a way that will damage the artifact?

4. Is the label readable?

5. Is it easy to find the label without having to handle the object a lot?

6. Is it easy to hide the label during exhibition or photography?  Is the label ugly?

7. What will happen if the label gets wet?

8. Is the label likely to come off with normal handling, running, or abrasion?

9. Is there a compelling and urgent reason to remove any existing labels that may be important to the history of the item? 

ANTLER, BONE, IVORY, TOOTH

  • Beware, sometimes synthetic materials are made to look like this.  See “PLASTIC”
  • Locate a smooth area that is not flaking, powdery or decorated.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.

BALEEN, CLAW, HOOF, HORN

  • Beware, sometimes synthetic materials are made to look like this.  See “PLASTIC”
  • Locate a smooth area that is not flaking, powdery or decorated.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.

Sometimes the tag is the redundant label on a basket, sometimes it is the only label.

BASKETRY

  • Typically, the underside of a basket is labeled and the inside of the lid, if present.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography.
  • For baskets with very large elements, like cedar bark mats or bark containers, apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • For baskets with a finer weave structure, do not use adhesive but instead a small hanging tag sewn in between the weave with a needle that may pass through easily.
  • Use labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.

Redundant label on the folder means less handling for the item itself.

BOOKS and PAPER

  • Inside cover and reverse of title page are the common places to mark a book. Writing on the top outer corner means the book doesn’t have to be opened all the way.
  • Number is usually applied to the back upper right corner of a sheet of paper such as a document or a print/drawing/ watercolor.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography.
  • Avoid labeling in an area that already has information written there (price, owner’s name, signature, etc.)
  • Apply number with a #2 or HB pencil, taking care not to press hard enough to make indentations. Write on a firm surface.
  • Use a labeled bag/ folder/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling. Insert an acid-free paper bookmark with number in pencil at the top to fragile books.

CERAMIC

  • Typically, the underside of a ceramic is labeled unless it is unusually large or heavy, and then a place is chosen low on the “back” side.
  • Locate a smooth area that is not flaking, powdery, painted or decorated. The smooth, hard, shiny exterior of some pottery, called glaze, is made of glass and can be labeled.
  • Beware painted surfaces and do not mark or adhere onto them.  Do not mark break edges of sherds.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography. Do not obscure maker’s marks on base.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.

It is possible to safely label leather and gut, but I consider it a more advanced skill set and generally recommend a paper tag.

FEATHER, FUR, GUTSKIN, LEATHER

  • Feathers of significant size may be labeled on the quill with a small font paper label.
  •  Most feather and skin artifacts have delicate surfaces and the removal of an adhesive label will leave a stain.
  •  Many feather and skin artifacts are connected to composite objects with other parts that may be labeled instead.
  • Some feather and skin items are sewn and a Tyvek label sewn through original stitch holes with white cotton thread may work, using the technique recommended for garments and textiles.
  • Stitch each end of the label so minimal snips are needed for removal.
  • No new holes shall be made. If no technique above will work, use a paper tag or label the enclosure.
  • Taxidermy is typically labeled with a tag around the leg, and also the mount support if present.

I like the collections management solutions offered by labeling a coin holder used for glass beads.

GLASS

  • Typically, the underside of a glass vessel is labeled.
  • Large beads may be labeled with a tag on a string.
  • Locate a smooth area that is not flaking, powdery or decorated. Do not mark glass that suffers from glass disease (weeping, crizzling, etc).
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography. Small font size on paper label helps.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.

I think B-72 loves metal more than any other material.

METAL

  • Typically, the underside of a metal item is labeled. If the metal item is very heavy, the “back” may be labeled instead.
  • Locate a smooth area that is not flaking, powdery, rusty, decorated, or coated. Musical instruments are often coated, for example.
  • Coins are usually not labeled directly. Edges may be labeled if large enough.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography. Small font size on paper label helps for smaller objects.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat. Avoid artist acrylics and adhesives containing ammonia with copper or alloys with copper such as sterling silver.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.
  •  Jewelry may be especially difficult to label, even with tiny font size. Redundant tags are helpful.

Did I mention I love redundant tags to minimize handling?

PAINTINGS

  • The back upper right hand corner of a painting is a good place for the number.  Large paintings may be marked on diagonal corners.
  • Artworks are sometimes removed from frames, so the back of the painting support is the best location for marking. Select a section of the wooden stretcher or strainer, plain wood if available.
  • Avoid touching the back of the canvas corresponding to the painted area. Label the rigid edges or backing board if the support is not visible.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • In addition, use a paper tag attached to the screw eye, D-ring or other hanging hardware. This allows a painting to be identified without excessive handling.
  • Collector and exhibition labeling/ marking on paintings has a long and important tradition.  Avoid removing old labels from the backs of paintings.

PHOTOS

  • Number is usually applied to the back upper right hand corner, in a non-image area along the edge.
  • For paper, apply number with a #2 or HB pencil, taking care not to press hard enough to make indentations. Write on a firm surface.
  • For photos made of plastic, use the blue photo pencil.
  • Sometimes, the right amount of dullness on a graphite pencil will also work on plastic but care must be taken not to scratch the plastic.  If the plastic has oily fingerprints, plasticizers, or coatings, pencil will not work well.
  • Use a labeled enclosure such as a bag or folder as redundancy and to reduce handling.

Acetone damaged all these plastics. Water-based labels often peel off too easily. I prefer tags for plastics.

PLASTIC

  • Many kinds of plastic are vulnerable to the solvent acetone used in B-72 labeling adhesive, so this adhesive should not be used.  Some older plastics are sensitive to water-based adhesives.
  • It can be difficult to identify specific plastics.  Rubber, vinyl, plastics, and synthetic materials should be marked with great caution as removal can cause damage.
  • Adhered labels often pop off of flexible plastics.
  • Many plastic items are connected to composite objects with other parts that may be labeled instead.
  • For a completely plastic object, the most conservative recommendation is to only use a paper tag with a labeled bag/ box as redundancy.  Enclosures also reduce handling, and many plastics age poorly so the less handling the better.
  • Some museums use water-based acrylic adhesive labels, or B-67 in petroleum distillates, but removal of these labels is not risk-free.

This Melvin Olanna marble sculpture (ASM 2000-6-2) is heavy! Don't put the label underneath, or you risk damaging the artwork or yourself looking for it.

STONE

  • Typically, the underside of a stone item is labeled. If the stone item is very heavy, the “back” may be labeled instead.
  • Locate a smooth area that is not flaking, powdery or decorated. Porous or rough surfaces are difficult to label. Avoid use edges of stone tools.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.

Blank Tyvek tag showing loops at the ends that are easy to snip for removal.

 

These are labeled at the inner back of the collar, but a redundant tag on the hangar reduces handling.

 

For rolled textiles, redundant tags are really needed.

TEXTILES and GARMENTS

  • For textiles robust enough and large enough to hold a label, a sewn technique with Tyvek and white cotton thread is recommended.
  • Garments are typically labeled where a manufacturer’s label might be found, such as at the back of a neck or the waistband.  Labeling diagonal corners is helpful for large rolled textiles.
  • Choose a location that can be hidden during exhibit or photography.
  • Cut a piece of Tyvek, write the number by hand with a Zig Millenium fade-proof and waterproof pen in the center, leaving room for stitches at each end.
  • Use seams and original stitch holes whenever possible. Second best is to pass the needle between the weave without piercing the yarns.
  • Stitch the label with a loop through two holes at each end so minimal snips are needed for removal.  Sharp needles work well to pierce Tyvek, while ballpoint needles are less likely to damage the textile fibers.

Each rattle also has its number written in pencil on the pallet that holds it.Redundant paper tags in each dish reduce handling and facilitate locating an item.

WOOD

  • Wood items are often painted, varnished or otherwise coated.  Avoid applying a label to those areas and seek out an inner, underside, or back surface that is bare wood.
  • Locate a smooth area that is not rough, splintery, or decorated.
  • Choose a location that will not show during exhibit or photography.
  • Apply base coat of B-72, paper label, top coat.
  • #2 or HB pencil may also be used on wood if the number can be applied without denting the wood and if it may be removed again with an eraser. Pencil, however, tends to be harder to read.
  • Use paper tag, labeled bag/ box as redundancy and to reduce handling.