Tlingit strong suits: The collaborative treatment and mounting of Tlingit armor at the American Museum of Natural History

Amanda Chau, Amy Tjiong, Judith Levinson, Samantha Alderson, Gabrielle Tieu, Tommy Joseph, Jeanne Brako, and Jack Townes


In 2017, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) began a multi-year renovation project to refurbish and re-curate its historic Northwest Coast Hall. Among the many critical components of the project are documentation and conservation of all objects in the display, reinterpretation of the exhibit, and engagement with Indigenous partners to guide themes and object choices presented in the Hall. 

Among the nearly 1000 objects comprising the new display, is a collection of Tlingit armor and numerous types of weapons dating from the 19th century. During an onsite visit and several online meetings, Tlingit artist and armor expert, Tommy Joseph, shared his extensive knowledge gained from examining Tlingit armor and weapons in collections around the world, aiding conservators in understanding the significance, use, and manufacture of this type of cultural material. 

The three Tlingit ‘suits of armor’ ultimately chosen for the display in the Northwest Coast Hall are a moosehide shirt covered with Chinese coins arranged in a chevron pattern; a complex tunic style garment constructed of hide, wooden elements, and sinew, called slat armor; and a sleeveless painted hide garment made to be worn underneath slat armor.  

Both the coin armor and the slat armor had long been exhibited in the historic Hall. Investigation and consultation revealed incorrect positioning of the coin armor on its mount and misalignment of the slat armor elements during prior restoration. Tommy Joseph’s involvement and guidance helped to rectify these problematic issues. Further, his participation in discussions of treatment goals and review of the broader collection enriched understanding of the relationship of these armor elements with the other components of the warrior’s protective clothing. This was essential for proper construction of the mannequins to provide a respectful and accurate representation of a seldom-seen category of Northwest Coast material. Background information, conservation treatment and mannequin construction will be expanded upon in the presentation, in addition to a further description of the collaborative process.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28