45th Annual Meeting -Treatment: Don’t Go It Alone, May 31st, “A Pole with a Story: Innovation Conservation and Documentation of an American Indian Story Pole” by Lesley Day

The narrative of this talk focused on a 12-foot story pole carved by William Shelton (Coast Salish), in 1930, specifically the treatment of a 6-foot section of it that is within the collection of the Hilbulb Cultural Center in Tulalip, Washington. Shelton has an interesting backstory- unlike most Northwest coast Indians during the turn of the century, he avoided boarding school was raised in traditional Indian ways only to leave home later to learn English and the white man’s ways. His position in both worlds allowed him to bridge divides and achieve some cultural allowances during a time of intense restriction and suppression. This included permission to carve the monumental pole which would capture many important stories of his people that he feared were at risk. Totem poles are a well-established material tradition for Northwest coast groups but the invention of story pole is credited with Shelton.

This pole was cut into sections and separated at some point in the past. A section was brought into the collection by the community. When the conservators, Lesley Day, Ellen Pearlstein, and Claire Dean, first encountered the pole section, it was in poor condition, covered with debris with large areas of wood loss and flaking paint. Lesley showed a series of time-lapse videos of the cleaning, which effectively demonstrated how this technological format can not only be an excellent tool for outreach but for the Native community also provides access and transparency. This was not the only time-lapse video in the conference; one was also included Lauren Horelick’s talk on the Flak-Bait in the General Session. Aside from cleaning, significant instabilities caused by insect damage and biological growth needed to be addressed. The wood matrix was punky and splintering, thus the surface needed consolidation. The conservators selected Butvar B98 in ethanol, a popular resin at this year’s annual meeting; it was also chosen as a consolidant for plaster in a treatment presented by Hugh Shockey’s in the Objects Session. In addition to wood consolidation, lifting and flaking paint was stabilized using cast Paraloid B72 film that was inserted behind the lifting flakes and heat set with a tacking iron.

After consolidation of the surface, major structural losses, which left undercut and unsupported areas, were stabilized. The conservators wanted to avoid impregnating the structure with epoxy resins, an undeniably irreversible intervention. Therefore they developed a removable system using a flexible epoxy Conserve W200 that was built up in several layers to avoid being locked in place by undercuts. These elements were then adhered into place with Butvar bulked with phenolic microspheres. Conserve W200 was selected for the reason that its flexibility would be compatible with dimensional changes in the wood.

Due to the scale of the pole and lack of access to fume extraction, the treatment was undertaken outside under a carport tent instead of in the restricted-access conservations labs, which is more often the norm. Along with the time-lapse video, the outdoor context allowed further community outreach which benefited the project significantly. During the visit of a community member, it was discovered through memory that the top section of the pole existed and was within the museum’s collections storage. It had been feet away the entire time but unassociated.

There are future plans to reunite the pole sections. A contemporary carver in the community was consulted and has proposed carving a strong back that would unite the two pole sections. Though it could not have been easy to work outdoors and under the eyes of the community, the invaluable connections made through these interactions proves once again that these actions are critical for best practice in the field.