Treatment of a Haida totem pole: All things considered?

Leslie Williamson


This totem pole was carved in about 1875 for Chief Eagle of Old Kasaan Village, Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. It was acquired by the Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation in the late 1930’s and erected outdoors in New York City in 1941. In 1980, it was placed flat on blocks on the grounds of the museum’s collections storage facility in the Bronx, NY. More recently, the pole has been selected as possible for exhibit in 2003, in the future museum building of the National Museum of the American Indian/Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. This prompted the current treatment project.

As with all oversized artifacts, the process of developing a treatment plan required much more time, thought, research, and advice than is usual for smaller scale projects. The conservation of this pole has been on going, involving numerous conservators, contractors, and interns over a span of three and a half years. The complex nature of the treatment necessitated drawing on the expertise of objects and wooden artifact conservators, a traditional Haida artist, curators, and engineers. There were multiple goals for the treatment: moving the pole to a new location, the request for exhibit, and the projected expectations a Haida viewer might have for the pole.

The treatment is still not complete, but the process of getting to the current state, and the expectations and planning of what will follow, are of greater interest than simply listing the procedures and materials used. I will examine the process of deciding why and how to treat the object; the importance of working within the expectations of other departments in the museum; the desire to consult with Native people from the pole’s region of origin; and the need to balance and justify these potentially conflicting view points into a cohesive project.

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1999 | St. Louis | Volume 6