Conservation at the Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver

Megan Narvey

The conservation program at UCL consists of two Master’s degrees over the course of three years. Two summers of those three years are consumed, more or less, with the writing of dissertations. The middle summer, however, is free. I’m Canadian, and although I’m very happy with my decision to study conservation abroad, I hope to work in Canada when I’m finished. Therefore, I used my free summer to build contacts in Canada by applying for an internship at one of my favourite Canadian museums.

The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has an impressive collection of objects from all around the world, and is most well known for its collection of objects from First Nations groups of the Pacific Northwest. The museum is also known for having a very inclusive policy of working with the communities it represents.

IMG_7239

Haida house totem pole in the Great Hall, from c. 1870. These poles were originally from one pole, which stood outside the front wall of a house called ‘Plenty of Tliman Hides in This House’, a structure belonging to the family of the clan of ‘Those Born at Gadasgo Creek’, of the Raven moiety. Please read more about them on MOA’s online catalogue, here.

I had visited the museum before and was impressed with the collection, the quality of the facilities (there was a major renovation in 2010), and was intrigued by its use of a glass door separating the conservation lab from the galleries. It didn’t hurt that this is the view outside.

The view from the staff lunch area is not too shabby.

The view from the staff lunch area is not too shabby.

At MOA, I worked under the guidance of the conservators Heidi Swierenga and Mauray Toutloff. I completed complex treatments, worked with volunteers, and learned about and assisted with earthquake-proofing of the storage areas (this is not a problem you come across in London!). The most interesting treatment I worked on was of a Kwakwaka’wakw wooden figure.

Before treatment

The figure would have been displayed publicly to honour the greatness of a chief, and depicts a chief being carried on the shoulders of a slave. You can read more about the context of the object here. The figures are painted with red and black paint, and the wood – likely cedar –  has been stained or varnished. The figure needed conservation as, during handling, the thumb of the chief had fallen off due to a failed previous conservation treatment. At the same time, a curator had come across a historic image of the figure where the outstretched arm of the chief was held in a different position. The historic position was more in keeping with the original context of the object, so we were asked if we could return it to this previous position.

Detail of where the thumb had broken

Detail of where the thumb had broken

The first step of the treatment was to determine how the outstretched arm was connected to the body, and how to remove it without causing any damage. There appeared to be a lot of pieces of wood nailed together around the joint, as well as a bright, new wooden wedge and two different kinds of adhesive.

Detail of the arm joint

Detail of the arm joint

After plenty of examination, it was clear that the arm itself was not nailed in place, but only adhered. The adhesive was found to be soluble in ethanol, so it was softened with the solvent and the arm easily pulled out of the socket.

Stage one of the treatment accomplished!

Stage one of the treatment accomplished!

The next stage of treatment was to remove the tenon, of the open mortise and tenon joint, and reattach it at an angle that would put the arm in its historic position. The tenon was attached to the arm with an overly strong adhesive that was causing the wood on the arm to fracture, as well as with six nails. I removed the adhesive with solvent and had to pry the tenon away from the arm using wooden wedges and hammer. Then I removed the nails from the tenon by hammering them out backwards, with a piece of wood to cushion the blows so as to preserve the nails.

The slow process of driving wooden wedges between the arm and the tenon to separate them without causing further damage.

The slow process of driving wooden wedges between the arm and the tenon to separate them without causing further damage.

Both the arm and the tenon were pockmarked with holes from nails hammered in and removed over time. In order to lower my impact on the object, I chose to reuse two of these holes to attach the tenon to the arm in the new position, and used screws instead of nails, which are easier to remove. Finally, I removed the visually obtrusive wooden wedge and replaced it with a piece of 8-ply black acid-free matboard. No adhesive was needed to secure the arm in place.

The arm joint after treatment

The arm joint after treatment

The last step of treatment was reattaching the thumb. Upon examination, four different eras of previous conservation were detected (all prior to the object’s acquisition by the museum in 1973, and the establishment of the conservation labs at MOA). There were wooden wedges, nails, what appeared to be a type of animal glue, and then what appeared to be a more modern synthetic glue. All of these treatments had failed because the thumb lacked good contact with the body. Therefore, I decided to use a combination of fill and adhesive to reattach the thumb to the body, with a modern, easily reversible conservation adhesive.

The thumb, reattached more securely to the figure.

The thumb, reattached more securely to the figure.

After the treatment, the object was returned to its location on display in the Great Hall of the museum, with what I see as a much grander and more imposing appearance.

The object after treatment.

The object after treatment.

My internship experience at the Museum of Anthropology was highly educational and equally fun. To learn more about conservation at MOA or their conservation internship program, please find more information at http://moa.ubc.ca/conservation/.

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