Preservation of Aboriginal Material Culture

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CCI Newsletter, No. 37, Spring 2006

Preservation of Aboriginal Material Culture

by Thomas Stone, Senior Conservator, Objects, CCI

This smoke-tanned jacket has been damaged by water.

This smoke-tanned jacket has been damaged by water.

Insects have eaten the wool vamp of this moccasin.

Insects have eaten the wool vamp of this moccasin.

Mi'kmaq educator Helen Silliboy (left) assisted conservator David Hanington in determining the correct position of some detached pages of a rare Mi'kmaq prayer book.

Mi'kmaq educator Helen Silliboy (left) assisted conservator David Hanington in determining the correct position of some detached pages of a rare Mi'kmaq prayer book.

Janet Mason (left) and Tom Stone discuss water damage to a buckskin shirt at an Artifacts in Aboriginal Cultural Centres workshop.

Janet Mason (left) and Tom Stone discuss water damage to a buckskin shirt at an Artifacts in Aboriginal Cultural Centres workshop.

Effective conservation of Aboriginal artifacts requires much more than expertise and knowledge of their materials and construction techniques. Treatment must also be approached from a holistic point of view, with respect for the individual customs, beliefs, and traditions that determine the appropriate care and handling of the objects. Preservation efforts are therefore most effective when Aboriginal people and conservation professionals work together.

The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has always recognized the importance of preserving Aboriginal material culture, and has a long history of working with Aboriginal artifacts — from totem poles to ivory carvings, from quill work to rock art. Some of the greatest technical challenges have centred around the softening, reshaping, and repair of water-damaged buckskin clothing, the removal of rancid seal oil from 1000-year-old Inuit skin artifacts, and the preservation of actively deteriorating glass beads.

Over the last 15 years, our treatments have increasingly considered the intangible aspects of artifacts (see David Grattan’s article Intangible Heritage and Conservation — Balancing Usage and Preservation). The treatment of a rare Mi’kmaq prayer book from Conne River, Newfoundland, in the late 1990s is a good example of the development of a treatment protocol that respects the cultural significance of the object (Hanington 2000; Howley and Penney 2000).

The prayer book, which contains hymns, prayers, and other religious texts, was written in a hieroglyphic script unique to the Mi’kmaq. On arrival at CCI, it was in an extremely vulnerable and deteriorated state, with a number of pages torn or detached. CCI conservator David Hanington (now retired) was uncertain about the correct position of some of the detached pages. Helen Silliboy, a Mi’kmaq educator who worked in Language Development with the Eskasoni School Board in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, was therefore called in to assist. Her reverence for the prayer book influenced David to re-think his entire treatment approach. As a result of her insightful comments (including a suggestion that such a spiritual object should remain untreated), a variety of treatment options were developed. A meeting was subsequently arranged with the Conne River Mi’kmaq Band in the community of Miawpukek in Newfoundland. After a lengthy discussion, Band Council members decided that the prayer book should be fully restored using the best of CCI’s technical expertise. Following treatment, the book was returned to the Miawpukek First Nation at Conne River and placed on display in the Band Council offices.

In addition to carrying out treatments, CCI helps communities develop cultural facilities to house Aboriginal artifacts and offers training in their care.

We have assisted First Nations, Metis, and Inuit groups in the planning of projects to preserve and interpret their cultural heritage. Senior Planning Advisor Brian Laurie-Beaumont has spent 30 years working with individual communities seeking to create cultural heritage institutions. His first step is always to understand the nature of the programs desired, what population the project seeks to serve, and the capital and operational resources available. With this information, he helps the community assess the pros and cons of the suitable development options. The goal is to find an option that not only preserves the cultural objects but also, equally important, the cultural traditions related to them — and one that is financially viable. When the community selects an option, he assists in defining the concept and creating terms of reference to guide the detailed project planning.

The delivery of this advisory service led to the realization of a need for training. A workshop, Aboriginal Facilities Development, was subsequently created to help communities understand the facility development process. Using examples drawn from Aboriginal institutions, the workshop covers the basics of market analysis and interpretive program approaches; the role of collections and the balancing of material conservation with cultural preservation; the projection of capital and operating costs as well as revenue; building design issues; the range of cultural heritage project options; the use of consultants; and the development of project planning terms of reference. Issues such as the role of Elders in development planning, and programming approaches relevant to cultural learning for Aboriginal audiences (e.g. language preservation), are key components.

Another workshop that was developed specifically to meet the needs of Aboriginal communities is Artifacts in Aboriginal Cultural Centres. This two-day workshop introduces participants to issues surrounding the deterioration of artifacts: why they deteriorate; how to recognize active and passive deterioration; and how to minimize deterioration in the cultural centre environment. This course is taught in an interactive, hands-on way with specific reference to the kinds of materials often found in Aboriginal artifacts. It can also be customized to meet specific needs, as was the case when the Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Cambridge Bay was concerned about the care of archaeological materials. In this case the workshop was blended with our Archaeological Collections Management workshop, and covered the same issues mentioned above but with a greater emphasis on archaeological materials and the particular problems they present.

In addition to workshops, CCI presents symposia every few years. One of the past conferences, Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnological Materials, focussed on the care and treatment of the diverse materials typically found in Aboriginal artifacts. Our next symposium, Preserving Aboriginal Heritage: Technical and Traditional Approaches, will take place in Ottawa on September 24–28, 2007. It will deal with traditional, technical, ethical, and intangible aspects of the conservation of Aboriginal material culture. To help ensure that Symposium 2007 will reflect the interests and perspectives of the Aboriginal communities in Canada, CCI is working with an Advisory Committee comprising members of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities across Canada. These members are providing advice and information on the symposium objectives, themes, program content, and formats. They were selected on the basis of their experience and knowledge as a member of their respective communities and for their involvement with the care and interpretation of Aboriginal artifacts.

Symposium 2007 will provide a unique opportunity for Aboriginal people and conservation specialists to learn from one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Following the conference, CCI will examine its current research, services, and training for preserving Aboriginal artifacts, and adjust as necessary to meet the needs of Aboriginal communities in Canada.