Cultures of Conservation ‘Keyword’ Panel: Conserving an Alutiiq Kayak

posted on 12 Nov 2015 18:30 by sumolsen
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By Catherine Stergar
On Tuesday, October 27, 2015, the Bard Graduate Center hosted the “Cultures of Conservation ‘Keyword’ Panel: Conserving an Alutiiq Kayak.” Four panelists spoke about several key issues regarding the preservation and conservation of an Alutiiq warrior or whaler kayak in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The mid-19th century kayak, which is believed to be the only surviving Alutiiq warrior/whaler kayak, came into the collection of the Peabody museum in 1869. In 2011, the Peabody museum received a grant from the Save America’s Treasures Program to conserve the kayak in addition to over one hundred other Alutiiq artifacts in the Peabody collection, all of which will be loaned to the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska, for a period of ten years.

T. Rose Holdcraft, senior conservator at the Peabody museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializes in textiles and objects and worked with Peabody staff and Alutiiq consultants on the conservation of the Alutiiq warrior/whaler kayak. During her presentation, she spoke about the conservation process, application of reversible, conservative treatments and alterations, and measures for preventing future damage to the kayak. Holdcraft and the team of conservators and consultants assessed the condition of the kayak and tested adhesives and alterations to fix skin tears. In addition, they developed measures for proper handling and storage of the kayak.

Sven Haakanson, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University Washington and also serves as the Curator of Native American Anthropology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. From 2000 to 2013, he served as the Executive Director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska. He is a native Sugpiaq and consulted with T. Rose Holdcraft and the staff at the Peabody on the conservation of the Alutiiq warrior/whaler kayak. During his presentation he spoke about the importance of studying the Alutiiq kayak and other surviving artifacts in museum collections to learn about and preserve cultural heritage and native practices. Haakanson emphasized the value of Alutiiq objects in museum collections as sites of knowledge about practices of Alutiiq ancestors that are relevant and have important cultural resonance in the present. He brought back knowledge of the kayak’s construction to Kodiak and worked with groups to build models of it and learn firsthand about the process of making the warrior/whaler kayak.

Judith Levinson is the Director of Conservation in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. She also serves as a lecturer at the Conservation Center of the Fine Arts Institute of New York. At the AMNH, Levinson and the museum conservation staff work with Native peoples on conservation projects of artifacts. Like the Peabody museum staff, the AMNH staff values partnerships with Native communities who can provide knowledge and insight pertaining to the the artifacts in the museum collection. The consultants also gather knowledge from firsthand interaction with the objects and the museum staff. During her presentation Levinson shared how the AMNH is currently partnering with Native Siberian cultural leaders on the conservation of Siberian artifacts. She spoke about the importance of balancing the ideal of minimal intervention in conservation practice with the community consultants’ expectations and suggestions.

George Nicholas is a Professor of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia and serves as the director of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project. During his presentation he spoke about the importance of access to museum collections for Native peoples and how learning from the objects in collections helps maintain and enhance cultural heritage and practices. Nicholas commended the Peabody museum’s partnership with Alutiiq consultants on the conservation of the warrior/whaler kayak and highlighted similar partnerships at other institutions, emphasizing how these partnerships are vital and need to be encouraged. He shared how Native communities have a vast amount of knowledge to share about the use, making, and meaning of cultural objects in museum collections and should be consulted in regard to the research, conservation, display, and possible repatriation of cultural artifacts in museums.


Catherine Stergar is a M.A. Candidate at the Bard Graduate Center.

Image: Kayak for single person whaler warrior. Image courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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