The Anchorage Project: Gut decisions in cultural and museum contexts

Landis Smith, Kelly McHugh, Michele Austin Dennehy, and Kim Cullen-Cobb


The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian are presently involved in a joint loan of approximately 600 objects to the Anchorage Museum of History and Culture. These objects are part of a project entitled, “Living Our Cultures,” created by the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center, which will be housed in the new wing of the Anchorage Museum. The premise behind this loan is to increase Alaskan access, knowledge, and use of the Smithsonian Institution collection, primarily by Native Alaskans. The loan for these objects is slated for a 12-year duration; however, there will be continual Smithsonian Institution object rotation well into the future.

The regional focus of this project provides a distinct opportunity for Smithsonian Institution conservators to concentrate, for an extended period of time, on the diverse materials, technologies and histories offered by these artifacts. Eleven cultural groups located throughout Alaska are represented in the exhibit. Currently, we are working on the treatment and preparation of selected objects from the Bering Sea cultures. The dependency on marine mammals for survival is illustrated in the number of artifacts made from the inner and outer skins of whales, seals, walruses, and sea lions. While there is a significant amount of information regarding outer skins, the conservation literature on inner skins is limited.

The unusual properties of gutskin can be somewhat intimidating to conservators working outside the Arctic region, who do not treat it on a regular basis. The opportunity to utilize two large comparative institutional collections, while having access to curators working with Arctic collections, marine mammal biologists, Native Alaskan consultants, contemporary gutskin artists, and conservation scientists prompted us to undertake a comprehensive study of this material in order to increase our understanding and inform our treatment decisions. This paper will report on results of our investigation and will hopefully stimulate a cooperative and expanded study with other conservators and artists working with this amazing material.

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2009 | Los Angeles | Volume 16