Northwest Coast Collection: Building Bridges and Detailed Conservation Survey

Northwest Coast Collection: Building Bridges and Detailed Conservation Survey

In 2020, DMNS was awarded an Institute of Museum and Library services (IMLS) grant (MA-245839-OMS-20) to fund this two-year project, which focuses on several hundred items from the culture groups: Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, Haida, and Tlingit. These communities are traditional inhabitants of present-day Washington State north through coastal British Columbia (Canada) and southern Alaska.

The goal of the condition survey is to advance stewardship and public access for items in the Northwest Coast Collection through a collaborative process with the communities. This means that items come into Avenir Conservation Center so we can study and document their materials, techniques, and conditions. Evidence of deterioration, damage and instability is noted and steps for future treatment and preventive conservation are proposed.

A major part of the project is collaboration with the Indigenous communities from which the items come. This collaboration is key to better understanding the collection items, promoting access, and planning for long-term care of these items in culturally appropriate ways.


What sets this project apart from a standard conservation survey is collaboration with Indigenous source communities throughout the process. The first step in engaging communities was preparing and sharing detailed lists of items with the tribes. 

In November 2021, two Tlingit representatives–Gooch Shaayí Harold Jacobs and Naakil.aan Hans Chester–visited DMNS from Southeast Alaska. The three-day consultation included discussing appropriate conservation and collections care for Tlingit items at DMNS. Harold Jacobs, Cultural Resource Specialist for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, has decades of experience working with cultural material, museums, and repatriation efforts. Hans Chester is a Tlingit language and culture teacher, basket weaver, and beader. Harold and Hans shared cultural knowledge regarding the items and made observations on materials, production technology, and style. Both Harold and Hans had visited collections at DMNS before, but this consultation was the first focused on materials, techniques, and preservation of Tlingit items.

During the summer of 2021, we welcomed Marlo Wylie Brillon (Skidegate Haida and Northern Cree) as our Native American Science Intern. In addition to participating in the grant workflow, Marlo conducted important cultural research and outreach to Northwest Coast communities to help us better describe and care for these items. Marlo contributed corrections to our catalog information based on her own cultural knowledge and what she learned from reaching out to other knowledge keepers. Through this outreach, Marlo arranged for two Haida representatives to come to DMNS. An emerging artist, Marlo was also able to share observations on materials and techniques used in carved wooden pieces from her own art practice.

In August 2021, we welcomed a delegation from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia to DMNS. During the three-day consultation, we examined and discussed Haida items, made condition observations, and discussed culturally appropriate stabilization and storage options. Aay Aay Hans (Skidegate Haida) and Raven LeBlanc (Skidegate Haida) shared cultural information that provides much needed context for DMNS collection items. A weaver and jewelry maker, Aay Aay helped us learn about weaving techniques in examples of basketry and Chilkat weaving. A carver familiar with Haida formline and iconography, Raven helped us observe the techniques and representations on wood and argillite pieces.

We look forward to welcoming more tribal delegations to help us with this project!

Condition Assessment

For each item that is part of the grant, we work to thoroughly document its current physical condition through digital photography and written records. We carefully examine the pieces and note evidence of deterioration and instability. Having both written and photographic records of each item helps us monitor changes over time and plan for treatment and care.

During the summer of 2021, Native American Science Intern, Marlo Wylie Brillon, and Teen Science Scholars Brisa Garcia and Shannon Kim performed photographic and written documentation for Northwest Coast pieces.

Items that are part of the project include: baskets, boxes, tools, weapons, masks, headdresses, figurines, etc. The materials the items are made out of include metal, wood, cedar bark, feathers, textiles, animal hide, and more.

North American Indian Cultures Hall

If you visit the North American Indian Cultures Hall on the Museum’s second floor, you will notice that many items are missing. We recently moved several items from permanent display to the Avenir Conservation Center so we can assess them and so tribal members can view the collections. By taking a closer look at these items, we can assess things like light damage and dust accumulation and make recommendations for future care.


What do this ladle and this diorama have in common?

Mountain sheep horn!

This ladle made of mountain sheep horn comes from the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw community. The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw are traditional inhabitants of coastal northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. The ladle dates to ca. 1820 and comes from Vancouver Island.

The horn (wa̱dła̱m, in Kwak̓wala) would have been soaked and boiled to make it flexible and allow shaping and carving. A bird’s head is carved at the end of the handle. The large size of the ladle is consistent with serving utensils or feast spoons (k̕wi'la'yu).

Conservator Megan Salas examines the ladle under the stereomicroscope to better understand the materials present and the item’s condition. Megan is particularly interested to see if there is any residue from use, as this can provide a better understanding of the item’s history.

Thank you to the U'mista Cultural Centre for their help with this content.

There are many similar spoons and ladles that are part of the Northwest Coast Collection.

Check out the video below for more on Northwest Coast spoons.

Northwest Coast Conservation

Haida Tattooing


Megan Salas, MA

Objects Conservator

Stephen E. Nash, PhD

Senior Curator of Archaeology and Director of Anthropology

Dominique Alhambra, MA

Anthropology Collections Manager and NAGPRA Coordinator

Erika Heacock

Assistant Collections Manager of Anthropology

Libby Couch

Business Support Specialist III

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