>> More photos from the move of E23549, Tlingit totem pole from Southeast Alaska


>> More photos from the move of E54297, Tlingit totem pole from Southeast Alaska.


>> More photos from the move of E205851, Bella Coola totem pole.

Anthropology Conservation Laboratory


The Life of an Object: The Move of Three Totem Poles in the National Museum of Natural History

Three totem poles, collected by James G. Swan in the 1870’s, were recently moved to new locations within NMNH. While not much is known about their exhibition history we do know that they were exhibited at the first official World’s Fair held in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Over the course of the Fair, ten million visitors attended, a number equivalent to approximately twenty percent of the American population at the time.

The young Smithsonian Institution—eager to display its growing collections of art and technology—was well represented at this event. Among the objects placed on display for visitors were these three totem poles, having been collected by Swan for the exposition. Two of the poles are Tlingit from Southeast Alaska, (E23549) and (E54297), and the third is Bella Coola from the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada (E20581).

After the World’s Fair, Museum records do not document what happened to the totem poles until the 1960’s.

From the 1960’s until 2004 these three totem poles provided a grand and elegant entrance into the Native American exhibit halls in the Museum of Natural History. In November, 2004, as interior museum construction commenced, two poles (E54297 and E205851) were moved to exhibit locations in the IMAX theatre lobby. The third pole (E23549)
was taken to Suitland, Maryland and placed in storage at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center. Click on the images to the left to see more images illustrating the steps involved in moving these totem poles.

Before moving the totem poles, we estimated the weight using the Canadian Conservation Institute method (CCI Notes, 6/7) of allowing 350 kg for each cubic meter and multiplying this by pi, times the radius squared, times the height. It was necessary to estimate the weight of lifting the poles to determine if the floor of the new exhibit location could accommodate the weight. Professional riggers were hired to lift them up, move them and place them into their new locations.

The move activity began at 5:30 AM, to avoid working near visitors to the museum, who would be arriving at 10:00. One of the Tlingit poles (E54297) was the first to be moved. It posed the fewest problems as it was made from one piece of wood and was in good condition.

The riggers, from United Rigging, put masonite sheets over the museum carpet to protect it as they worked. A rolling scaffold was used to gain access to the upper totem pole brackets for removal from the wall. The foreman of the rigging team examined the pole with the conservator to determine the safest and strongest area to hold onto the pole. The hold had to be near the middle to establish a safe balance during the move. For this totem, there was only one area that was acceptable, an area with no paint, no protruding carving, and no cracking or other apparent weakness. A thick packing quilt was wrapped around this area, strapped with two inch wide nylon straps, and buckled into place. Another strap was secured to this strap and made into a loop. Two sets of Genie Lifts with a horizontal aluminum beam supported between them were driven up next to the pole. The beam was placed through the strap loop.

When everything was secure, the beam was raised over the totem pole and the lifts very slowly moved the pole up off its exhibit mount. When the beam and totem had reached a safe distance from the wall, the beam was slowly lowered. The pole was hand guided and gently placed into a horizontal position onto two padded dollies.

The Bella Coola totem pole from British Columbia (E205851) is made in two sections and required a rigid support on the back to prevent strain to the joins as it was placed in the horizontal position. The two upraised arms on the top figure had been nailed in place, so to prevent movement and possible damage, Ethafoam™ blocks were placed between the arms and the head, and plastic wrap was wrapped around to hold the arms and the Ethafoam™ blocks in place. To additionally minimize movement in the join and hold the two sections of the pole firmly in place, a wooden board was strapped to the base with two nylon straps wrapped under it and attached securely to additional straps under the neck of the upper figure.

After being lowered onto the dollies, both poles were rolled over to their new exhibit positions in the IMAX lobby. The reverse procedure was used as each one was slowly lifted up and onto its new mount. New plexiglas covers were placed into slots in the backboard and screwed into place. The plexiglas is high, protecting the totems from being touched. It is open above this, however, which does allow dust to fall onto the poles. Light in the area is diffuse sunlight and ceiling lights.

The third totem pole (E23549) was to be returned to storage, and an aluminum storage support, padded with Ethafoam™, was built by Joel Allen and David Eustaquio of the Museum's Collections Support staff. This support was positioned against the back as a brace as the pole was lifted up and placed on the horizontal. It remained on this support for its move to the Museum Support Center and remains on it for its continued storage.


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