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Anchorage Loan Conservation Project

The Anchorage Conservation Project Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska
Photo by Chuck Choi. Arctic Studies Center, Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska.

Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska represents one of the largest and most fruitful loans of cultural artifacts ever made by the Smithsonian Institution. Curated by Aron L. Crowell and co-curated by Dawn Biddison, the exhibit was launched in May of 2010 in a new wing of the Anchorage Museum (AM) at Rasmuson Center. The impetus for this path-breaking project must be credited to the vision and tireless energy of Dr. William Fitzhugh, founding director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center (ASC), and the superb group of scholars and colleagues he has gathered around him.

In Alaska, institutional support for the creation of a regional office of the Arctic Studies Center grew out of a memorandum of understanding signed nearly 20 years ago between the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)  and the Anchorage Museum. With the enthusiastic support of Pat Wolf, then Director of the Anchorage Museum, and Elmer Rasmuson, the leading AM Board Member, ASC-Alaska was fully realized along with the expansion of the Museum to accommodate a dedicated Smithsonian exhibition gallery.  The appointment of Dr. Aron Crowell as director of ASC-Alaska in 1994 launched a vigorous program of research and outreach to Alaska Native communities. The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) strengthened the project when they signed their own agreement with the Anchorage Museum in 2008 under the current the leadership of James Pepper Henry.

The real groundwork for the exhibit began in 2001 when ASC-Alaska launched a project to survey and document Alaskan collections at both NMNH and NMAI. Over the next five years Aron Crowell brought nearly 40 Native Alaskan elders, artists, and community consultants to Washington, D.C. on a series of research trips. Participants spent weeks together at the Suitland, Maryland facilities of both NMNH and NMAI where they consulted on, dialogued about and provided insights into our Alaskan collections.  The result was an initial selection of almost 400 objects from NMNH and nearly 200 objects from NMAI for an unprecedented long-term exhibition that would feature community access in Anchorage. 

Outreach and dialogue with ten Native Alaskan culture groups continued during the three-year conservation and bracketing phase of the project served to deepen a shared knowledge of the objects as well as inform conservation treatment and display intentions. During this time elders and community representatives again traveling to Washington D.C. to work with our team. Native consultants, conservators, curators, and collections managers at both Smithsonian Museums actively collaborated to strike a balance between direct access to the objects by community members and the long-term preservation of some of the oldest and most extraordinary Arctic collections held anywhere in the world.  The balancing of aesthetic, access, and object-safety concerns represented major challenges for all concerned. This included working with an innovative vertical rod mounting system—that would allow objects to ‘float’ and be seen in the round—while developing seismic mounts that would ensure object-care and mount stems that would facilitate easy removal and access for community study.  Much more than simply a traditional loan, the results have set a new standard in the field of ethnographic conservation.

Innovative floor-to-ceiling glass display cases now house the objects of these Native communities, many of which have returned to Alaska for the first time since they were collected, some over 125 years ago. Framed by interpretive videos and touch screen technology that helps contextualize their meanings, all of these stellar objects are on long-term display for the public.  A combination of case design features, specialized staff training, and a Cultural Resource Room for receiving objects enable them to be made available for hands-on examination and dialogue by elders, artists, and scholars. These innovations make the exhibit a model for continued dialogue between community members and museum professionals.

Conservation Overview

This website chronicles the collaborative and integrated approach to conservation of objects of Alaskan Native Heritage undertaken over a three year period at the National Museum of Natural History Anthropology Conservation Laboratory (ACL) and the Conservation Department at the National Museum of the American Indian in preparing objects for this exhibit.

As conservators we are charged with the long-term preservation of museum collections, encompassing examination, research, analysis, documentation and treatment to stabilize objects and mitigate the long-term effects of degradation. During this process important contextual information often emerges.

For ethnographic conservators the information an object can impart is thus viewed as a function of place and time. Objects are understood as cultural documents and as potential repositories of language, social relations, tradition knowledge, songs, stories and memories. An object’s meanings include not only its history as a museum object but the place and circumstance of its creation, use and or circulation. It is the totality of these concerns that inform the work of ethnographic conservators work which depends on engaged collaboration with Native consultants. This project created a space for dialogue in which such collaboration took place. The combined perspectives and knowledge of Alaskan Native consultants, conservators and curators illuminated cultural meanings, enabled past histories to emerge, and foregrounded indigenous aesthetics. Consistently it was Native knowledge and information, unavailable in the published literature, that enhanced our understanding and was brought to bear upon documentation, conservation decision­making, and display of the objects.

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Above photos (right to left): Landis Smith, Chuna McIntyre, and Vernon Chimalegrea; Igor Krupnik and Michele Austin; Jeremy Jacobs, unidentified, Kelly McHugh, and Landis Smith.

Equally important to the success of this all-encompassing project were the physical and intellectual resources of the Smithsonian Institution. Collaboration was initiated by the conservation team from both the NMNH/ACL and the NMAI, who pooled resources and solicited the participation of curators, scientists and conservators from many branches of the Smithsonian, including the Museum Conservation Institute and the Natural History Museumís Department of Botany and Divisions of Mammals and Birds.

The care and handling of the objects included in this loan would not have proceeded as smoothly were it not for the professional and highly creative and resourceful participation of a stellar group of mount makers, packers and installers. The team of object mount makers worked along side project conservators to find creative solutions to exhibiting these objects so that they are both accessible and protected, while professional museum packers worked tirelessly to accommodate a grueling schedule for packing a complex and delicate group of objects.

It was our great good fortune to have the opportunity to work intensively, for an extended period of time, on this extraordinary collection of objects, with such a knowledgeable body of people, knowing these incredible objects would be returning home after many years absence, to be richly animated once again by stories, song and dance.

Project Challenges

The project was complex from the beginning because the object preparation work was done in Washington, DC and the exhibit venue was in Anchorage, Alaska. Over the course of the project clear communication was critical and a spirit of collaboration essential between museum staffs separated by such distance. Project conservators worked collaboratively with the staff at the Anchorage Museum in resolving a multitude of issues and challenges integral to such a large loan and innovative exhibit including: addressing issues related to the design review and construction of the gallery located in the recently completed new wing of the museum; researching and evaluating seismic requirements for the gallery, exhibit case design and mounted objects due to the museumís location in an earthquake zone; establishing environmental requirements for sensitive objects for a twelve year exhibit period; researching, testing, and evaluating an innovative case design utilizing a tensioned rod system for displaying objects; assisting mount makers in developing mount designs to protect objects while on display and when removed to adjacent study areas for hands-on examination by Alaska Native elders, artists and scholars; coordinating consultations with Alaska Native consultants from the 10 cultural groups represented in the exhibit to inform conservation treatment and display; overseeing the necessary elaborate packing required to ensure the safe delivery of fragile objects to a museum more than 3000 miles away; as well as carrying out the customary treatment, stabilization and condition reporting associated with loan preparation.

Case Studies Page
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To learn more about the conservation process click here >>

To learn more about the object mount making process
click here >>

To learn more about the object placement and case review process click here >>

To learn more about the packing and installation process click here >>

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