Preserving the past and honoring changing traditions

On March 1, 2014, the Penn Museum will unveil “Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now,” its newest exhibition, which will challenge visitors to set aside their preconceptions about Native Americans and discover a living tapestry of nations with distinct stories, identities, and contemporary leaders.

The launch of “Native American Voices” will mark the beginning of the exhibition’s five-year journey at the Museum, during which nearly 300 objects representing more than 100 tribes will be rotated on display.


Photos by Steven Minicola

“We know the objects in the Penn Museum’s collection are extraordinary as documents of different communities, times, and places in history—but we also wanted our collection to speak to the ongoing concerns and changing traditions of the people whose ancestors made them and first imbued them with meaning,” says Lucy Fowler Williams, exhibition curator and senior keeper of the Penn Museum’s American Section.

But as with any exhibition, the objects presented in “Native American Voices”—ranging from 11,000-year-old projectile points to contemporary art—were not dusted off just to be casually strewn around the Museum’s galleries. The weeks, months, and years leading up to an exhibition’s premiere require thoughtful planning, collaborative curation, and precise, careful conservation of its archaeological, historic, and contemporary collections.

Setting the stage

In the early stages of an exhibition, the curator selects artifacts and works with community consultants, content developers, and exhibition designers to create a storyline that will provide informative context and enhance the visitor’s experience. The team then compiles a tentative list of objects, which is sent to the Conservation Department for review.

“We go through [the list], and make sure that the objects are safe to be exhibited in good condition,” says Lynn Grant, senior conservator at the Penn Museum. “For ‘Native American Voices,’ we’re actually rotating artifacts in and out of it because we have such a rich collection.”

Grant says certain objects rotate throughout the exhibit because many artifacts are not suitable to be on display for a full five years, due to the delicate nature of their materials. To designate the best treatment for each item, Grant and her team analyzed each artifact on the list and determined the appropriate exhibition timeframe for each piece.

“We’re really sticking with the proper stewardship of the artifacts,” Grant says, adding that a major part of doing so is setting appropriate light levels for each item. “Unless something is really engineered properly, you end up with [visitors] going from a well-lit area of the exhibition to a low-lit area, and they end up thinking the exhibit was dull and dark as they walk out,” Grant says. “Whereas if you’ve got enough space, you can do a gradual step-down [of lighting.]”

For “Native American Voices,” Grant says the exhibition designers arranged the artifacts by their light requirements. Once a group of items is confirmed for a given space, the conservation team works with exhibition designers to  determine even more environmental parameters, including everything from the angle at which an item will be positioned to which material will be used to safely secure an item in its place without harming the artifact (custom-made brass mounts and rare-earth magnets are common).

“If we wanted this stuff to last forever, we’d be keeping it in the dark in an argon atmosphere at just above freezing,” Grant says. “But everything from there on is a compromise. So because we’re an educational institution, these are hard-working artifacts. It’s important for them to tell their stories. We just try to minimize the impact the exhibition has on them.”

The art of conservation

For each artifact in the exhibition, the conservation staff can spend anywhere between 30 minutes and 30 hours working to carefully preserve the object’s historical integrity and ensure its longevity. There are numerous elements that come into play when assessing how an object should be treated: anything from previous harsh restorative treatments and poor storage, to what conservators call “inherent vice,” meaning the nature of a given object makes it inherently susceptible to deterioration.

For instance, the exhibition will feature a pair of moccasins that were created using a form of tanning known to weaken the hide over time.

“For the people who used them, if the moccasins lasted 10 years, that was great—they were probably not thinking about where they were going to be 10 years from now,” Grant says. “Leather or hide, depending on how it was tanned,  can get very brittle, so there could be lots of tear repair.”

Many such elements have affected one particular 100-year-old Lakota dress, made of brain-tanned deerskin and adorned with heavy and intricate glass beadwork.

“With this dress, you can see that the low points are dirtier—and it’s probably from it dragging on the ground when it was worn,” Grant says. “We have this whole thing about dirt versus ethnographic dirt. If it’s dirt that came from when the object was in use—especially wear patterns on moccasins, or things like that—we would never try to remove it because that’s part of the history of the piece.”

The relevance of some artifacts’ wear is not always as easy to determine. For one particular item—an Alaskan bird charm and hide strap used on the side of an umiak for good luck and strength in catching whales—the team debated how its treatment might affect its meaning in the exhibition.

“It was all crinkled up because of the way it was tied with the hide. Should we flatten it or should we leave it? We had the question of, well, what does the evidence tell you? What’s the balance between too much [conservation work] and softening it to make it meet the needs for conservation and to make it look better for the viewer, but not to remove all of it so that story is preserved?” Williams says.

While Grant says determining the answers to those and many of the other questions involved in creating an exhibition is “more of an art than a science,” she says it always requires a collaborative approach.

“There’s a lot of people in the Museum involved in the process,” Grant says. “We have meetings to discuss and brainstorm how each [item is to be treated.] It’s very much a team effort.”

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