JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 5 (pp. 203 to 215)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 5 (pp. 203 to 215)




Prior to the conservation consultations that are the focus of this paper, NMAI conservators collaborated with Native community groups or individuals on a number of situation-specific projects for treatment. Three of these consultations are discussed below to illustrate projects that involved requests by the Native community for use of NMAI's collections. Two others, treatments of a Haida totem pole (Williamson 1999) and a Passamaquody birch bark canoe (Kaminitz and Poiss 1999) were museum-initiated for stabilization of objects prior to their relocation to NMAI's new collections facility. Though none of the earlier collaborations involved the systematic planning and documentation that is the focus of this paper, NMAI curators and conservators worked to identify appropriate individuals in the communities, and then thoroughly documented in the report for each object the treatment process, techniques, and treatment rationale that resulted from the collaboration.


One of the first collaborations for treatment between NMAI conservation and a Native community was initiated in spring 1996, when Rick Hill, Tuscarora guest curator, selected a late 19th-century finely beaded Tuscarora textile to be the centerpiece of the Tuscarora section in the NMAI Stories of the People exhibition. The textile had significant areas of bead loss and was actively losing beads. Lack of lead time and available staff for an in-house stabilization treatment gave rise to an alternative solution suggested by Rick Hill: Tuscarora beadworkers could be contracted to treat the textile. With the consent of the NMAI's registration, curatorial, and conservation departments, an NMAI conservator traveled with the textile to the Buffalo-Niagara area near the Tuscarora reservation. The Tuscarora council selected five women with bead-work expertise to work on the project.

Over the week-long project, the original treatment goal shifted from stabilization to compensation for loss. The beadworkers felt uncomfortable stabilizing only the extant beads and leaving the gaps in the pattern. They felt the piece would not represent their community well, if displayed with so many losses, and that it would be just as easy to replace missing beads as the stabilization progressed. After intense theoretical debate within the conservation department the restoration was pursued using the following rationale: (1) Bead loss resulted from previous storage and display methodology at the museum. (2) Losses were well-documented through photography, drawings, and written reports. (3) The stitching thread and stitching method chosen for the restoration would be distinguishable from the original. (4) Experienced beadworkers who were descendants of the artisans who originally created the blanket were best suited to carry out this restoration (Heald 1997).


Another consultation experience began in the spring of 1996, when Robert Kentta, Cultural Resources Protection Specialist for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon, inquired during a repatriation visit if several pieces of Siletz regalia in good condition could be loaned for use in their upcoming ceremonial dance house dedication and Nay Dosh ceremony. For the Siletz community this was an important event—it was the first dance house built by Siletz people since the 1870s and was a land-mark in the resurgence of Siletz culture. The temporary loan for ceremonial purposes was unanimously approved by NMAI's curatorial council.

Conservation staff first reviewed the regalia to see what items might need stabilization for dancing, then in consultation with Kentta, determined which regalia should be stabilized in the lab prior to the loan, and which should be stabilized at the Siletz Cultural Center in collaboration with the Siletz experts known as Dance Makers who make traditional dance regalia and coordinate the ceremony.

The pieces were couriered to Siletz by an NMAI conservator who documented all stabilization methods and materials used by the Dance Maker to make the regalia secure for dancing. Generally, only the most experienced dancers wear older regalia, including those items borrowed from museum collections. After every round of dancing, the floor was inspected to collect bits of shell or feather that might have fallen off the regalia, whether old or new, to be re-associated and repaired after the ceremony (Heald 1996).

The Siletz community was excited to have older regalia return home temporarily from NMAI and from some Oregon museums for this important occasion. This experience helped to strengthen the conservation department's resolve to follow the museum's mission of collaboration and consultation. The Nay Dosh ceremonies continue annually at Siletz with more and more young people participating in the dances (Kaminitz et al. 2005).


In a third example, in March 2000, the conservation department received a request to assess the condition of eleven birch bark scrolls, originally collected by the museum from the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) of the Lake Winnipeg region (Harter et al. 2001). A delegation from the Anishinaabe Hollow Water First Nation wished to view the scrolls as part of their research program to strengthen jurisdiction over their lands. Birch bark scrolls are primarily associated with the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Anishinaabe. Pictographs are incised on the bark and are not visible unless the scrolls are unrolled. The conservation department was asked by the delegation to assist in opening the scrolls due to the brittle condition of the bark. After examination, NMAI conservators determined that unrolling the scrolls would cause damage in the short allotted time available to the community.

At this point, a decision was made by NMAI staff, following the mandate of the museum, to recognize the Hollow Water community as the authority or decision-makers regarding the treatment to unroll the scrolls. Traditionally, a strict protocol is followed when opening and viewing the scrolls; this is typically done by a medicine person from the Midewiwin. Only the community can decide if the social and political importance of the scrolls outweighs the risk of damaging them. Conservators presented various treatment options to the community liaison, who discussed these with the elders. Following this discussion the Hollow Water community requested that treatment be suspended until their visit to NMAI.

Their visit revealed that the elders believed the community was not ready to comprehend what the scrolls contained and so it was decided the appropriate action at that time was to leave them rolled and carefully stored at the museum. Through this experience, the conservation department developed an understanding that one of our responsibilities is to provide information to the communities, which can assist them in making decisions appropriate for the care of their cultural material. It is not necessary for us to know why decisions are made, but simply to realize and acknowledge that appropriate knowledge resulted in appropriate action for all parties involved.

It was these first collaborations that paved the way for an overall shift in the way NMAI conservators do their work. The processes described in this paper reflect how the approach became more systematized during the development of the Mall exhibits. Our methods will continue to evolve with experience as we adapt and develop strategies for different projects.

Copyright � 2005 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works