Artifacts of Continent’s First Nations Restored at AMNH

The Northwest Coast Hall, home to the American Museum of Natural History’s First Nations of the Pacific Northwest collection, is AMNH’s oldest, opened in 1899. | Photo by Matt Shanley/ American Museum of Natural History

The museum’s oldest exhibit, the Northwest Coast Hall collection is home to the cultural and artistic expression of the indigenous First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska through British Columbia and into Washington State.

“As the museum approaches its 150th anniversary, we are excited to refresh and enrich the museum’s first hall and the first cultural gallery,” Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, said in a September 25 media briefing. “With an eye on both history and the present, we are pleased to be enhancing this important and magnificent hall to reflect the living cultures of the Pacific Northwest.”

Representatives from some First Nations communities traveled to New York for the announcement.

The Northwest Coast Hall restoration will include work on 78 totem poles, including six that are 12 feet in height and line the hall. | Photo by Matt Shanley/ American Museum of Natural History

Bill Cranmer, a hereditary chief said his great-grandfather, George Hunt, worked with then-museum curator Franz Boas, known as “the father of American anthropology,” to prevent First Nations history from being lost. Cranmer sang a prayer song to bless the collection and everyone working at the museum.

Under the direction of Boas, the museum opened the Northwest Coast Hall in 1899. Hunt, raised in his mother’s Kwakwaka’wakw (earlier often termed Kwakiutl) community, was a close collaborator of Boas’, the two working together to collect artifacts. The exhibit displays totem poles big and small, tools, ceremonial masks, and decorative pipes.

“Boas’ deeply thoughtful cultural relativism, developed in dialogue with First Nations collaborators, was directly associated with his opposition to all forms of racism,” said Dr. Peter Whiteley, the museum’s curator of North American Ethnology.

The museum’s Department of Conservation is beginning its restoration project on the six 12-foot-tall totem poles that line the hall. It will take them more than a year to completely finish restoring these six, the first among a total of 78 red cedar totem poles, ranging from six to 18 feet in height, that will be refurbished and enhanced.

The conservation staff explained that previous treatments on the poles were done before the museum had the services of professional conservators. Earlier treatments, they explained, weren’t stable, allowing dirt to be trapped in the wood and darken the colors of the paint on the poles. Any new treatments will be applied in a manner to ensure they don’t change the poles’ appearance or otherwise permanently impact them, they said.

“It is a very complex issue in that the paints were directly applied to the wood without a ground layer, so to some degree either small or large the paint has migrated into the wood,” said Judith Levinson, the Department Conservation’s director. “Then through the years coatings were applied to the pieces to preserve them but by doing so sealed in dirt accumulated through the years.”

Conservationists said they will use a process known as the modular cleaning program, a methodical approach to testing and cleaning paint on traditional paintings and more modern surfaces, as well.

“Its often different from one color to another on the same pole,” said Levinson. “We will have to deploy a variety of cleaning strategies potentially for the same piece.”

As a part of the project, the museum curatorial and conservation staff will be consulting with several Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous communities.

The First Nations representatives on hand emphasized the significance of the heritage represented in the collection and their belief in the spirit and love they embody to this day.

“These pieces on display have a voice which is powerful and loaded with meaning,” said Ron Hamilton, a First Nations artist and cultural historian. “The complex metaphors that these things provoke, the belief systems, philosophies, ethics, morals, and principles on which societies are based on. We have to have that stuff surface.”

Dr. Peter Whiteley, AMNH’s curator of North American Ethnology, explains plans for the hall’s restoration and updating. | Photo by Levar Alonzo

Later this fall, the museum will hold a convening of Native and non-Native scholars, artists, and conservators to consider additional approaches to the conservation and reinstallation of the hall’s artifacts.

“We eagerly look forward to working with First Nations communities to create a modern exhibition hall that we hope will serve as a new exemplar,” said Whiteley. “We want to build on a long history of dialogue with Native experts that transcends the boundaries that often divide museums and Native communities.”