Chiefly feasts: A collaborative effort

Judith Levinson and Linda Nieuwenhuizen


Conservators formulate their approach to compensation from a variety of internal and external influences that ultimately result in aesthetic and philosophical values. Our decisions are deeply embedded in our cultural history and are also affected by the requirements of our curators, exhibition personnel, and outside consultants.

In 1990, the American Museum of Natural History began intensive preparations for an exhibit entitled “Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwaqiutl Potlatch”, a multifaceted collaboration which celebrated the continuity of the Northwest Coast potlatch tradition. The Kwakiutl are reknowned for their elaborately carved and painted masks as well as for the potlatch, an occasion when a noble family invites guests to witness a display of the host’s status.

For “Chiefly Feasts”, collaboration with native consultants, often the descendants of the original creators of the artifacts, helped to determine the course of conservation treatments. Within the Kwakiutl culture the carvings were the property of high-ranking chiefs and they would never have been shown lacking important elements or in a state of disrepair. The Kwakiutl would have seasonally reworked, repainted and refurbished their objects. The consultants brought concerns that the treatment of the objects and the method of their display be in the proper Kwakiutl manner.

Our collaboration with the Kwakiutl consultants generated solutions that reflected our different cultural orientations. This project revealed to us some of the underlying assumptions that affect the ways that we make compensation decisions. Prior to this project, our treatments, albeit often inventive, tended to be made to satisfy curators’ or conservators’ personal aesthetic, or were derived from a set of accepted “traditional” western conservation solutions.

Examples will be given that illustrate compromise solutions for non-interventive compensation devised for a number of artifacts from the “Chiefly Feasts” exhibit. These will be contrasted with additional treatment descriptions to highlight some of the underlying assumptions that we make, and the particular difficulty encountered when dealing with ethnographic objects.

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1994 | Nashville | Volume 2