Conserving 25 Jaki-Ed Marshallese Dress Mats at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Rebecca Summerour, Ingrid Ahlgren, G. Asher Newsome, and Gwénaëlle Kavich


Jaki-ed are woven dress mats from the Marshall Islands, an island nation in Micronesia. Made for decorative clothing or valuable gifts, these mats are woven, plaited, and embroidered with pandanus leaf strips, hibiscus inner bark, the inner bark of a beach creeper vine, and pigmented varnish. In support of Ingrid Ahlgren’s post-doctoral research on Jaki-ed in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, a group of 25 mats, collected around the turn of the 20th century, were studied and conserved. This project set out to characterize materials in the mats and devise a protocol to stabilize them in preparation for handling by visiting researchers. Due to scant documentation on materials, processing, and in particular coloring in jaki-ed, analytical techniques were explored including X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF), direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (DART-MS), and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). Results were compared with analysis of a mat-making materials kit that is contemporary with the mats as well as a collection of botanical samples.

While each technique provided some information – for example confirming the presence of inorganic pesticides or characterizing the varnish on a hibiscus sample as a gum – examination with a stereomicroscope proved most fruitful for characterizing the mat making materials. Conservation protocol was initially guided by curatorial input, limited literature, and the structure of the mats and their materials. Mid-way through the project, Marshallese weavers Susan Jieta and Rosie Helmorey came with Aileen Sefeti, project coordinator for the Jaki-ed Revival program, to the NMNH through the Recovering Voices (RV) Community Research Program (CRP). The CRP visit provided a physical and intellectual space to collaboratively contemplate the ongoing value and legacy of these plaited mats, both for the indigenous population that originally made them, and for the museum’s collections staff. The RV grant helped overcome the great distance and limited communication lines between the Marshall Islands and Washington, DC, allowing weavers to visit the mats and share information about materials sourcing, traditional construction, traditional storage, social histories, and associated beliefs that have had important implications for their ongoing care.

This project demonstrates how indigenous knowledge vastly improves a museum’s ability to care for cultural objects, but can also raise questions concerning the balance of conservation needs and indigenous expectations or desires. As an example, the weavers place high priority on the aesthetics of jaki-ed, and in another context, they might take a more restorative approach to their care. In this museum context, however, the conservator had limited weaving authority and familiarity with mat-making materials, as well as time restraints that directed treatment toward a more conservative approach. Conversations during the CRP visit helped refine protocol to merge the treatment approaches and care of Jaki-ed at the NMNH.

2019 | Uncasville | Volume 26