Northwest Coast Collection: Building Bridges and Detailed Conservation Survey

Northwest Coast Collection: Building Bridges and Detailed Conservation Survey

The Avenir Conservation Center is actively carrying out work on an Institute of Museum and Library services (IMLS) grant (MA-245839-OMS-20) entitled Northwest Coast Collection: Building Bridges and Detailed Conservation Survey. The project, which was funded in 2020, involves working with originating and descendant Indigenous communities to determine culturally appropriate care and conservation for material culture from five groups: Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, Haida, and Tlingit. These communities are traditional inhabitants of present-day Washington State north through coastal British Columbia and southern Alaska.

A major part of the project is collaboration with the Indigenous communities from which the items come. Collaboration is key to better understanding the collection items, promoting access, and planning for long-term care of these items in culturally appropriate ways. This means that items come into Avenir Conservation Center so we can study and document their materials, techniques, and conditions. Evidence of deterioration and instability is noted and steps for future treatment and preventive conservation are proposed. During the workshops, we discuss treatment and storage options with the representatives and decide how to proceed and privilege their input.


What sets this project apart from a standard conservation survey is collaboration with Indigenous originating and descendant communities throughout the process. The main form this collaboration takes is workshops at DMNS.

To date, we have hosted five three-day workshops: two with Haida representatives, two with Tlingit representatives, and one with Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw representatives.

The first workshop took place in August 2021 with representatives from Haida Gwaii. 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 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 Gidins (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 techniques and representations on wood and argillite pieces. Aay Aay and Raven returned to DMNS in April of 2022 to revisit some of the discussions we started in 2021. James McGuire (Skidegate Haida) was able to accompany them and contribute to the decision-making.

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 visit was the first focused on materials, techniques, and preservation of Tlingit items. Harold and Hans returned to the Museum in March 2022 to delve deeper into conservation questions about certain items. Hands-on demonstrations of basketry repair techniques-both traditional and conservation-were a highlight of this visit.  

Condition Assessment

For each item that is part of the grant, we 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. During the summer of 2022, Teen Science Scholars Ellie Van Es and Jacob Ramos performed condition reports as well.

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

Conservation Treatment

During the summer of 2022, Teen Science Scholars Ellie Van Es and Jacob Ramos worked to stabilize a large Tlingit cedar bark mat (A1723.246). During a visit with Tlingit representatives Hans Chester and Harold Jacobs, this mat was identified as in need of stabilization due to numerous breaks in the cedar bark elements. Treatment options were discussed and together with Hans and Harold we decided to take a minimally interventive conservation approach of stabilization with adhesive bridges. After examining and documenting the mat, Ellie and Jacob were trained in how to apply stabilization mends made of toned tissue paper with wheat starch paste.


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


Casey Mallinckrodt, M.A.

Head Conservator

Megan Salas, MA

Objects Conservator

Katy Kaspari, MA, MSc

Objects Conservator

Ella Thomas

Conservation Assistant

Libby Couch

Business Support Specialist III

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