January Meeting Summary—Mutual Outreach: collaborative study and preservation of coastal Alaskan Native material culture with museum staff, Alutiiq scholars and artists, university students and the visiting public

Posted on Mar 15, 2015

S. Dillon Ripley CenterThe focus of Fran Ritchie’s (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation, National Museum of the American Indian) talk was her participation in a collaborative treatment project between The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA, funded by a grant from Save America’s Treasures.  Though the treatment itself was focused on four Alutiiq kayaks and related kayak materials, including gut-skin clothing, the result of the collaboration was “a museum environment of mutual learning” in which several innovative approaches of conservation outreach were applied.

Three main avenues of outreach were implemented. The first manifested as a public conservation space on the first floor of the Peabody Museum where the kayaks and select smaller artifacts were treated. A space in the first floor gallery was retrofitted into a lab with double doors opening to the public to facilitate questions from onlookers. Unlike other visible conservation laboratories, this space had no glass separating visitors from conservators, so open conversation between conservators and onlookers was welcome and encouraged. The space was open to the public on a regular schedule, three hours a day for three days a week for the duration of the treatment. Casual logs regarding the nature of questions posed by visitors revealed that half the time visitors had general questions about the field of conservation.

The second avenue of outreach was explored through semester-long Museum Anthropology courses taught by a Peabody Curator.  Conservators gave guest lectures, including a session on surface cleaning, and students participated in an object-based study paper in consultation with conservators and Alutiiq consultants, such as Sven Haakanson, former Director of the Alutiiq Museum. The project gained a wider notoriety through student feedback on social media.

The third avenue of outreach was the consultations with the Alutiiq representatives. They occurred over skype and other web platforms as well as in person during two annual visits from consultants to the Peabody space. The exchange featured discussions regarding material and treatment possibilities and workshops on traditional Alutiiq methods of kayak construction and gut-skin sewing. The consultations were mutually beneficial, as conservators gained valuable cultural knowledge to devise sensitive treatments, and consultants disseminated preservation knowledge to other members of the community upon returning home.

Additionally, all of these interactions helped to better inform the conservation treatments of the objects themselves.  Ritchie spoke specifically of the treatment that she completed of a child’s waterproof gut-skin parka. Consultation with her Alutiiq colleagues about this object revealed that the specific embellishments indicated that it was used for special occasions.  These conversations also enabled Ritchie to make critical decisions about which past repairs to keep intact and which were in need of replacement.

Ultimately, lasting preservation of these precious objects was achieved, and the collaboration resulted in a profound opportunity for both the Alutiiq people and the Harvard University community to personally and culturally embrace. As Ritchie concluded, the project, through its collaboration and outreach, ensured generations of the Alutiiq will “have a sense of place, a sense of dignity, a sense of worth and a sense of self.”

Summarized by Desirae Peters, 4th year Graduate Intern at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Quinn Ferris, 4th year Graduate Intern at the University of Virginia Library and Special Collection.