Conservation of anthropological artwork

These  highlights  from  the  Artwork  Conservation  Project  in  the  National  Anthropological Archives  show  how  an  object's  treatment  takes  account  of  its  unique content  and  context

This oversized map of the San Blas coast of Panama was stored tightly rolled around a wooden dowel for decades. It was so brittle and unwieldy that none of the NAA staff could clearly recall ever seeing it unrolled.

Handdrawn map of San Blas Coast, Panama

Our conservators gently flattened the map, removed rusted staples, mended tears, and ... began sewing? They discovered that the smaller scenes above the coastline were actually on separate sheets of paper, loosely basted onto the map with coarse thread. As they worked to secure these lovely vignettes, they realized that the artist had used different thread, probably adding pages at different times.

A search through historic records identified the artist: Igwa Nigdibippi, a Kuna from Panama who visited Washington in 1924 with members of the Marsh-Darien expedition.

Our research also uncovered a new mystery; early photographs show the map with different scenes sewn across the top edge. Why the change? The answer awaits diligent researchers with expertise in Kuna art. And if they can't make it to the archives? Thanks to our imaging and photographic staff, researchers can order digital or photographic copies to study. (Ms. 4490)

Mount Fuji map

Here's an object that really lives up to its title: "A True Bird's-Eye View of Mount Fuji" delivers just that. Tourists could use the heavily illustrated map to learn about the annual fire festival in July, get practical information for a climb, or find scenic viewpoints. But the map's importance extends far beyond guiding mountain climbers. "Mount Fuji" was one of many Japanese maps included in a 1939 exhibit in New Hampshire called "Around the World."

Before being displayed, each map was carefully annotated with English translations and commentaries for the edification of the viewing audience. "Fuji San," the captions explain in reverential tones, is a "graceful, sublime, and sacred mountain... renowned as a grandeur of the Extreme Orient." With time, the captions themselves have become an important artifact documenting America's fascination with Japan just prior to the second World War.

Mount Fuji map

An aerial view of the 1877 map (above). Conservation technician Denise Stockman designed several prototypes before hitting on a three-dimensional form to support the mountain. (Ms. 7457)

Mount Fuji map and photograph

The American photograph attached to the map evokes the collector's travels in Japan and, in contrast to the Japanese woodblock print, it hints at cultural differences in representation.

Plains Indian ledger art book


When we first started working with this poor book of Plains drawings, it had a certain Humpty Dumpty quality — its loose pages had gotten scrambled. We called on all the king's horses and all the king's men to put it together again, pooling knowledge from our conservators and curators to reassemble the pages in correct order.

Conservators used the ghostly images transferred from acidic inks to identify facing pages. Curators used their knowledge of the way Plains Indians placed drawings in books, such as using the juncture of facing pages as the groundline. We also looked for pictures that spanned multiple pages — a more difficult task than one might think, given that Plains artists composed their scenes in a manner that seems strange to viewers used to Western books. In some scenes, hoofprints gallop along one page, while the horseman charges across the facing page. By themselves, the hoofprints don't make much sense, but when both pages are together, they tell the story of a much larger encounter. Working together, we were able to put this pocket book's pages into their original order and orientation before it was rebound.

In this scene from the little pocket book, the many hoofprints across the bottom show the great number of mounted warriors involved in this fight. Notice the hail of enemy arrows and bullets flying past the warrior as he escapes. The story simply isn't complete unless both pages are together. (Ms. 4452B, Inv. 08664400)

 

Drawing of train by Choh

Drawings and paintings might not spring to mind as traditional Navajo arts, but two NAA manuscripts suggest that perhaps they should. This detailed train, skillfully drawn by a Navajo artist named Choh, was collected in the 1880s. An 1886 report describes Choh's easy familiarity with pencil and paper as he stood at the counter of a trading post, drawing from memory.

This pencil drawing shows the smudges and smears of time, but is otherwise in good shape. In the Smithsonian's Annual Report for 1886, the collector described some of Choh's other drawings, including "telegraph poles and wires alongside the [train] track," "pretentious birds," and "flaming red frogs with blue stripes adown their backs and sides." Unfortunately, these drawings did not survive.

Painting by Klah-Tso

This Navajo painting, from a set of 31, also shows how native artists adopted commercial materials. Klah-Tso painted these ceremonial scenes on fine cotton cloth, dyed a deep tan. He used a sharpened stick to apply native pigments and commercial gouache, and a brush to add commercial oils. The dynamic painting known as The Ride is the work of this talented artist who successfully adopted new media and new concepts. Klah-Tso's beautifully detailed paintings and Choh's delightful train provide rare glimpses of the Navajo world at the turn of the century.

The oil paints used for this group of Navajo riders was in good condition, but the white gouache was flaking off the cloth backing. Conservators treated the pigment to stabilize it, then created specialized mats that support the paintings and protect the paints from wear. (Ms. 138,501, Inv. 377,480)


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