The Aftermath of Mends: Removing Historic Fabric Tape from Tlingit Basketry, presented by Caitlin Mahony and Teri Rofkar
The talk began with an introduction from Teri, who reminded us to be thankful to the caretakers of the land in Montreal. She and Caitlin then shared their presentation of a Mellon fellow project at the National Museum of the American Indian on removing a series of historic mends from Tlingit basketry. This project served as an opportunity to “reactivate” the baskets in their collection.
Teri read from a book entitled for Healing Our Spirit, sharing a Tlingit Oratory which advocated us to “apply kindness to open wounds,” an interesting perspective on the state of the baskets prior to conservation.
After seeing the image above of one of the first mother baskets, the audience was introduced to the history of Tlingit basketry. The primary material of these baskets is spruce root, some of which is dyed. Originally constructed as functional objects, they were eventually woven for the tourist trade, which helped the community transition from a subsistence to a market economy. When in use, Teri mentioned the baskets could be expected to have approximately a 100 year life span given heavy use.
There are now over 700 Tlingit baskets in the NMAI, many of which suffer from condition concerns. These include rips, tears, losses, and fold lines. Patterns of damage indicated that the dyed spruce root regions may be contributing to weakness. In 2011, the NMAI hosted a Mellon fellow research project that investigated the processing of spruce root at a cellular level. This set the stage for the more recent project which was focused on treatment.
In the first half of the 20th century, a repair campaign on pottery in the NMAI collection was documented. An image shared in the lecture showed a row of gentlemen seated behind a table covered with ceramics. A similar campaign was likely undertaken with the Tlingit baskets, though there is no documentation. Most of the repairs used hide glue or cellulose nitrate impregnated fabric strips that were painted with oil paints. Either the colors were never close matches or they have shifted significantly with time, but the repairs are currently aesthetically incongruous.
Of the 580 baskets investigated, 130 had historic mends. Of these, 24 had major repairs, which was defined as 20+ mends or a mend that obscured a sizable area of the wall or base. Tears were frequently found adjacent to these mends, likely due to the greater strength of the adhesive than the basket. Distortion was also noted, likely due to the effects of the drying of the adhesives. They also caused the removal or redeposition of tannins, dirt, and residue from the baskets, resulting in tide lines. Given the current condition, many of the baskets could not be exhibited, studied, or handled. Thus, the baskets were ‘inactive’ and no longer serving either their original or adopted functions.
NMAI hosted a three-day conservation workshop in April with representatives from museums with strong Tlingit basket collections. One goal of the workshop was to form an integrated protocol, as well as to study the technology and develop action points to create a path forward.
Since the workshop, NMAI has undertaken extensive documentation, consulted with the Tlingit community to correct and confirm catalog information, identified the wrapped weft material, which had been called false embroidery, and created digital reconstructions. These computer-generated images were created by Laurie Stepp and illustrate how the baskets would have looked when new. They also analyzed the color values, as the tannins are oxidizing and the dye fading.
After processing this information, experimentation was undertaken to develop a treatment approach. The primary goal for the baskets with major repairs involved taking down the fabric mends. Mockups provided by the Getty were used to test various methods. First focusing on the hide glue repairs, Caitlin found that water caused tide lines and blanching when applied with less control. However, when applied in the form of 2% agarose gel, the adhesive was softened and no tide lines formed. This approach was then used in treating the baskets. No barrier layer was necessary and they could work in multiple locations at the same time. They covered the agarose with plastic and gently weighted the gel to reduce evaporation and improve contact. Caitlin found a dwell time of approximately 45 minutes was effective. The fabric tape and residual adhesive could be mechanically removed with wooden skewers in the direction of the stitches; no adverse effects were noted from the treatment.
However, once the fabric was removed, areas of basketry were revealed whih had been protected from light exposure, indicating what the colors may have looked like when the baskets were first collected. This brought up the question of the aesthetic reintegration of the areas of previous repair. Conservators discussed this with curators and considered what the baskets might gain and loose through reintegration. The repairs are part of the baskets’ stories, but they are also visually distracting. This is an ongoing conversation.
Storage was designed for each object, based on individual needs and condition concerns. NMAI is also exploring how to improve access to this collection. They want to ‘reconnect the disturbed baskets’, and are currently loading tablets with the images and information which can be distributed to schools and used for other programs. An ongoing goal of the project is to continue collaboration between institutions to facilitate knowledge sharing. The NMAI also wants to connect with the contemporary weaving community, which Teri described as fragile, explaining that there were not many weavers 100 years ago and that there are even less now. Contemporary weavers work on commissions – so let’s ask people to weave again!
The talk ended with Teri saying, ‘Gunalcheesh, Ho, Ho. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’ With this, she extended gratitude to the baskets and the remarkable women who wove them.
After the presentation, two questions were asked:
- Q: Did NMAI find any traditional repairs? A: Yes, which included the weaving of new spruce roots, the combination of parts of baskets, such as the bottom of one with the walls of another, and the repurposing of large baskets to extend their lifetime.
- Q: The agarose gel approach worked for the hide glue, what about with the cellulose nitrate mends? A: No, agarose did not work and acetone has negative effects on the baskets. They plan to try saturating the areas with D3/D4 silicone solvents to mask the materials and create a dam, but this is an aspect of future work.
This post was written from my personal notes, which may contain errors or inaccurately represent the author’s original intentions.