Conservation of the Popular American Indian Hall
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History

Navaho silversmiths

Diorama of Navaho silversmiths in Hall 11
of the National Museum of Natural History

the American Indian Hall opened at the National Museum of Natural History, and for the following 47 years the public enjoyed and learned from artifacts created by the peoples of South and Central America, the American southwest and California. Full-sized mannequins, some made in the late 1800s, depicted life groups of Hopi Indians at home; Navajo weavers and silversmiths at work; Hupa Indians preparing a meal with acorns; and a Carib group working a cassava squeezer. In addition, visiting children loved to gaze into the miniature world of the dioramas, instantly transported to the southern tip of South America to see Yagan people seal hunting or a Yosemite Indian Village. Exhibit cases held masterpiece basketry and premier ceramics collected from the pueblos of the southwest. Although some exhibits were modified over the years (Seminole artifacts, for example, were added in 1990), most of the original artifacts in Hall 11 remained on display for nearly five decades.

Yosemite diarama
yosemite mannikin
Case 29 baskets Removing glass

A small diorama of a Yosemite Indian village

Yosemite hunter displayed in the diorama
Basket masterpieces in Case 29
Glass removal

When the museum decided to close the hall in 2002, a contract conservator, Michele Austin, and a project coordinator, Pat Henkel, were hired to assist the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory and Collections Management staff in the takedown of more than 600 artifacts. Charles Noble and the staff of the Department of Exhibits provided equipment, coordinated glass removal and assisted in a variety of difficult situations. As the very large sheets of glass were removed from the case fronts, the Collections Management staff identified and tagged each object. This task was at times quite problematic as some objects had no visible catalog number and objects had to be painstakingly examined.

Hopi diorama
Carrie Beauchamp
Shell money

James Krakker helps take down the Hopi life-size diorama

Carrie Beauchamp searching for catalog number
Shell money glued to exhibit case wall
Costumes with hides nailed to wall

Older techniques of gluing and nailing objects to secure them onto a backboard, and piercing through footwear to stabilize mannequins, had been used throughout the hall. Surprisingly, the glue often failed easily, shearing off from the wall with very little mechanical action and with no damage to the artifact. Nails were more difficult to remove, with the nail head often deeply buried in the hide or textile. Fading of textiles and mats — damage which cannot be reversed — was very evident. A colorimeter using the CIE L*a*b* color measurement system is being used to measure the extent of the fading. The obvious light damage is accompanied by less apparent chemical damage as the fibers have become weaker and more easily broken. Most difficult to remove were the life groupings with dressed mannequins. The clothing was in fragile condition and had to be manipulated to be removed.

Detail of nail in hide
Mocassin support
Fading shirt
Packing mounts

Detail of nail in hide

Metal runner screwed into mocassin for support
This shirt faded everywhere but under the belt
Natalie Firnhaber and Pat Henkel packing a papier mache figure

A dedicated and hard working volunteer staff from the conservation lab helped to pack the objects in the exhibit hall and then unpack them for storage at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. The artifacts were packed and shipped using a system developed by Greta Hansen for the move of the anthropology collections in the 1980's that provided a safe and efficient method of packing and transport at low cost. (see Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol. 42, No 1) Standard wooden drawers formerly used by the Anthropology department for collections storage served as our “crates”.

A tissue wrapped object was cushioned and blocked in a drawer using urethane foam and bubble wrap; a second drawer was then inverted to make a lid. In this way drawers could be stacked and strapped to a cart. The carts and the move truck had been designed for the earlier move for maximum efficiency. Objects too large for the drawers were packed in cardboard boxes that were strapped onto the carts. This method worked for all but two life sized papier mache skeletons that needed a specially designed box.

Packing spears
Kachina on display
Kachina rehoused

Shannon Simmons packing spears

Katsina on display in the Hopi case
Detail view of the Katsina
The Katsina rehoused

More than 600 objects were carefully tracked in a database. They are now being processed through the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory. Each object will be photographed, vacuumed, humidified for reconfiguration (as necessary), and old exhibition mounts will be removed. Each will have a report written stating its current condition. Finally, if warranted, a mount or tray will be constructed for each object, providing stable long term storage, and allowing safe access by future researchers.

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