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.


AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, June 1, “Deep Storage: Reburial as a Conservation Tool” by Emily Williams

During the archaeological-themed session of the Objects Specialty Group, Emily Williams spoke about her experience with a critical issue for archaeological conservators:  vast quantities of objects and limited storage space.  I have been tangentially involved in decisions to rebury large architectural marble columns in situ at the Etruscan site of Poggio Colla, so I was keenly interested in Emily’s approach.

Beginning in the 1970s there has been exponential growth in museum archaeological collections in America.  States have been forced to close facilities to incoming finds due to lack of cataloging resources or space, and the cost of storage facilities that meet modern conservation standards can be prohibitively high.  Emily made a fun and appropriate analogy:  can storages move like hermit crabs?  The answer:  not logically.

In America there is a trend to deaccession objects that no longer fit within a collection.  However, this is a risky undertaking for objects in archaeological contexts because of the interdependence of objects within a site.  Deaccessioning part of a collection could compromise reliable data sets or future analysis.  Disposal, sale, or transfer to another institution are equally problematic.  “No one wants rusty nails.”  Reburial is a tool that has been used for large-scale organics such as shipwrecks, and Emily cited the reburial of underwater material in Marstrand, Sweden.

At Colonial Williamsburg, the conservators are faced with a collection of 60 million artifacts (!), and over half of the historic area is yet to be excavated.  Emily discussed a project involving the transfer of the archaeological collection to new climate-controlled storage spaces, including 50 pallets of architectural material (brick and stone fragments non-scientifically excavated from the historic area in the 1930s and 1940s).  These pallets took up 5,000 cubic feet of storage and 45% of the total budget.  The material was mostly non-diagnostic, not requested or accessed, and attracting animal infestation (evidenced by prolific nesting of rodents and insects).  Given these concerns, the decision was made to re-bury non-diagnostic brick and stone fragments with the understanding that they could be re-excavated if necessary.

Very specific details were given about the re-burial choices.  For example, the fragments were bagged and placed in their original pine crates with Tyvek tags (written in both Sharpie and pencil).  They were grouped by site, only stacked 2 deep, and GPS marked.  The crates were placed in an existing excavated cellar within the historic area and backfilled with sand.

I am particularly grateful when speakers present positives and negatives of a given choice, and Emily outlined both.  Due to financial restraints, the original pine crates were used.  If she were to do this again, HDPE would be preferred, as the pine will eventually decompose and some of the archaeological context could be lost.  Individual fragments were not labeled due to time and the sheer number of small pieces, but this would have been preferred.  Ideally, they would have reburied the material in a trench outside the historic area in the event that the house would be rebuilt in the future.  The obvious lack of access to the collection was mentioned, and the concern that reburied collections could become “out of sight, out of mind.”

This method of reburial is not without ethical and spatial concerns, but given these limitations, there are vast preservation gains for the collection as a whole.  There is no correct answer for these difficult decisions, but I agree with Emily’s approach that we need to view archaeological collections in a “holistic rather than particularistic” way.


AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, June 1, “Recovering Painted Organic Objects from Ancient Mesoamerica: Strategic Considerations in the Field and the Lab” by Harriet F. Beaubien.

The first session of talks for the Objects Specialty Group focused on archaeological materials.  Fitting to the theme, Rae Beaubien opened the talk by picking up the headlamp near the computer (improvisation by the always-prepared Program Chair Sanchita Balachandran when the podium light was missing) and exclaimed “Oh good, there’s a headlamp!”  Then she proceeded to wear it long enough for the audience to laugh.  This welcome humor introduced a talk that focused on her extensive fieldwork experience in Mesoamerica and practical considerations for the recovery of fragile painted organic objects (you guessed it, the acronym is none other than POO).  I was particularly looking forward to this talk because of my interest in archaeological material and my awe and respect for Rae’s knowledge and treatment skills (introduced to me when she was an adjunct archaeological instructor during my conservation training at Buffalo).

These painted organic objects, typically made of gourds or wood, are often only detected if they are associated with an inorganic material like stucco, paint, or stone.  They were a significant part of ancient Mayan material culture during the Classical Mayan Period (3rd – 9th centuries C.E.) and are commonly associated with offerings and furnishings in high-status tombs.  Due to the incredible instability of the material, the prolific nature of these organic materials is only known through depictions on Mayan art, written descriptions from Spanish missionaries, and similar examples in use by modern cultures.

Rae illustrated examples of surviving objects from the sites of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, Cerén in El Salvador, Copán in Honduras, and Waka’-El Perú in Guatemala.  The ability to successfully excavate this type of material is based on conservation involvement, as well as other factors:  How accessible is the deposit?  How much time is available?  Can the high-value materials be cleared first to prevent looting? Can conservation be done later?

Through images and anecdotes, Rae illustrated a number of conservation strategies and practical recovery methods  for a variety of excavation situations.  For example, a jumbled deposit of paint flakes, jades, shells, stone, and ceramics from Copán was collected within a grid pattern of 350 squares, stratigraphically if the layers were preserved.  If the surface required consolidation, it was photographed, then B-72 was used with a subsequent facing of Japanese tissue and methylcellulose.  The material within each grid square was transferred to a container and brought to the lab for a slow and careful excavation under the microscope.  Incredibly, they were able to identify a painted wooden burial platform from hundreds of lifted containers.  Other considerations were mentioned and addressed, such as:  Does it need pre-consolidation? Can you gain access underneath the object?  Can the floor be cut?  Is it resting face-up or down?  For objects resting face-up, can you clean and photograph them first?

Rae’s talk was peppered with clever terms, such as:

  • “articulated removal” to join groups of fragments using methylcellulose and Japanese tissue
  • “informational reconstruction” of a large object based on multiple lifted areas
  • “assisted lifting” (my favorite!)

For the most fragile objects, block lifts were performed to keep the fragments in their original alignment and to buy extra time for excavation in the lab.  Methods were used such as wrapping in plaster bandages and applying cyclododecane.  Extensive stabilization was required, as the objects had to be packed and carried on rough hiking trails two miles back to camp.

The talk ended with a reiteration that even failed block lifts can yield valuable information (through loose fragments to categorize, cross section, or use for pigment analysis) and that any effort to retrieve these fragile objects is worth it.  The talk successfully balanced an overall conservation strategy with practical treatment examples, and I came away with an increased knowledge of Mesoamerican organics, their fragility, and the conservation involvement that has played a crucial role in their recovery and interpretation.