AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, June 2, “The Impact of Access: Partnerships in Preservation” by Chuna McIntyre, Kelly McHugh, Ainslie Harrison, and Landis Smith

I found this to be a very inspirational and moving talk on many levels, in particular the exemplary collaborative nature of the projects described by Ainslie Harrison and Chuna McIntyre during the second day of the Objects Specialty Group session.  Ainslie introduced the subject of ethnographic collection access and the changing nature of access as academic methodologies have evolved within museums.  Over the past few decades, museums have become more inclusive through contacting native communities for repatriation, consultation, and advisory committees.  These partnerships can offer vast benefits and a dialogue that flows in both directions to preserve both the tangible and intangible aspects of museum collections.

The 2007 Anchorage Loan Project was the first collaboration between the Smithsonian and Chuna McIntyre, a Central Yup’ik Eskimo born and raised in the village of Eek in southwestern Alaska.  Chuna learned his ancient traditions from his grandmother, including dances, songs, and stories of his ancestors.  He currently shares his cultural heritage through travels, performances, and Yup’ik language instruction at Stanford University.  Ainslie detailed Chuna’s collaboration with the Smithsonian for the upcoming exhibition through several examples, including:

  1. A treatment on a pair of dance fans that had lost their plumage.  Chuna advised the conservators that a dance fan is designed to move through the space when you are dancing; without its feathers, it becomes a static object devoid of its original purpose.  Ainslie outlined the conservators’ concern that traces of the original quills remained inside the holes in the fan and they were hesitant to remove this original material.  Thus, a solution was found by designing a plexi backing for the attachment of new feathers.  In this way, the original material remained but the meaning and life of the object was restored for the visitor’s experience.
  2. A wooden Yup’ik diving seal mask had lost appendages (including its four-fingered spirit hand) during its lifetime in the Museum, but the pieces could not be located in storage.  Chuna expressed concern that the mask now told a different story, and he was able to carve new appendages that were pegged into the object.  The additions are based on photographs of the missing pieces, are reversible, and were documented by the conservators.  In addition, the existing feathers were static and old, and Chuna’s first instinct was to replace them.  Through his collaborations with conservators he acknowledged that for conservators, if something is intact, it needs to remain on the object.  Conservators were able to clean the existing feathers and stabilize other damages to bring the mask back to life.
  3. While at the Smithsonian, Chuna was able to access objects in the collection for his own study and cultural knowledge.  In one cited example, he was able to study a parka and make a glassine pattern to bring home to construct his own parka.

Chuna McIntyre then took the podium with a moving and inspirational combination of personal stories, anecdotes, and treatment examples.  He started with a Yup’ik quote, which he translated:  “A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us.”

He described his feelings during the 1970s when touring the Bronx museum, when he could never get to the other side of the glass to access his ancestor’s objects. “Objects have a way of telling their stories, but they are told front to back, top to bottom, and inside and out.”

As someone who is constantly thinking of ways we can use digital technology to enhance a visitor’s experience, I was particularly fascinated with Chuna’s view on technology.  He said: “The Yup’iks are not squeamish about using new things.  We find them exciting and they help us augment our culture and our place in this universe.  We’re all aborigines to this planet.”

He then described his involvement with the history of Central Yup’ik mask restoration.  If an object needs its proper fur and feathers and the object itself is not accessible, then new technology will allow Chuna to virtually restore the object.  He cited virtual and physical restoration examples from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY and the Arctic Studies center at the Smithsonian. ”It is a privilege to work with these objects.  These are our world treasures and museums house them.  It is a privilege to go to museums and view these objects.”

Chuna described his experiences visiting sites in Egypt, such as the pyramids and Tutankhamen’s tomb, and relayed his excitement at seeing the pharaoh by saying “I sang to him in Yup’ik, I couldn’t help myself!” He mentioned his impressions of Ankor Wat, Petra, and Macchu Pichu, and that great expanses of the sites were actively restored and maintained.  His ancestor’s masks are no different – they are monuments to his culture – and should be restored for us and for our future generations.

The talk concluded with a traditional Yup’ik song of thanks that Chuna learned from his grandmother:

He translated the lyrics: Thank you for my labrets /  Thank you for ‘I can see into the distance’  /  Thank you for all my necklaces.  The song teaches that as we mature and acquire “accoutrements of responsibility” we are to be thankful for them.  I was thankful for the inspirational messages and collaborative projects, and I left the lecture hall with a new outlook on restoring ethnographic collections.  And goosebumps.