Getting to the Gut of the Matter: The Conservation of Siberian Yupik Winter Gut Parkas

Amy Tjiong, Judith Levinson, Samantha Alderson, and Gabrielle Tieu


In 2014, objects conservators at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) undertook a two-year project to treat and rehouse portions of its Siberian ethnographic collection. These pieces are frequently requested for study by native knowledgeholders, traditional artisans and researchers. Among the 100 objects chosen for treatment were 14 gut skin parkas attributed to the Siberian Yupik people. The parkas were fabricated from the intestines of marine mammals to produce materials termed ‘summer gut’ and ‘winter gut’. When wet, summer gut is translucent, easily conforms to the wearer’s body, and is waterproof. When dry, however, it is very brittle and easily prone to tearing. Winter gut, on the other hand, is opaque white in color, soft and supple when dry, but can have a negative reaction to contact with moisture. Limited information exists in the anthropological and conservation literature regarding the manufacture and treatment of winter gut and how it differs from summer gut in appearance and functional qualities. In fact, current conservation treatment approaches for winter gut tend to rely on strategies designed for hide or summer gut. Experimentation to produce winter and summer gut was undertaken and ultimately provided enough material to test treatment protocols and materials. Accompanying and supporting treatment, this project involved extensive scientific analysis and native consultation. Peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) analysis was performed to determine species of the source animals and to shed light on fabrication practices and differences among the Yupik of eastern Siberia and those of St. Lawrence Island. Additionally, histological study was performed to examine microscopic differences between winter and summer gut, which clarified their differing sensitivity to moisture. Extensive native collaboration, such as web-enabled video conferencing, visits by native scholars and craftsmen to the museum, and travel by conservators to both sides of the Bering Strait took place throughout the project. The information gained from scientific analyses and collaboration with descendant communities offers an expanded view of the technical qualities and cultural uses of winter gut and a reconsideration of current conservation approaches to objects manufactured from this unique material.

2019 | Uncasville | Volume 26