Video Connects Native Consultants and NMAI Conservators
In a quiet room removed from the midday sunlight at the NMAI Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, came a unison greeting, “Hello! Good morning!” It took a few attempts, but a live video feed was established between the conservation team at the CRC and a group of Southern Ute community members in Colorado. It was two hours earlier out on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, so as the conservation team readied objects for discussion, the Colorado group settled in with their coffee. The first objects up for discussion were a man’s dance shirt, a beaded bandolier bag, and a woman’s Ghost Dance dress.
The video consultation between NMAI and the new Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum (SUCCM) in Ignacio, Colorado, was arranged to discuss objects that are being documented and treated for loan to the SUCCM, which opens this May. Before conservation decisions are made for any object, a conservator conducts extensive documentation, examination, background research, and analysis. Oftentimes the literature on material culture falls short of a conservator’s queries. Video consultations, such as this one, provide cultural insight into an object’s meaning, use, original appearance, and materials that will ultimately enrich the documentation, treatment, and display of the object.
Southern Ute man's shirt, ca. 1880–1890. Colorado. Length, 68 cm. 7/3053.
For example, when traces of dark red paint on the inside collar of the man’s shirt (7/3053) were described to the Ute consultants, tribal elders Bennett Thomas and Byron Red knew right away that they would find the same red paint on the inside front of the shirt. They explained that the traces seen on the shirt resulted from the rubbing off of ceremonial earth paint the wearer used on his body for spiritual protection. To a conservator, knowing the ceremonial aspects of the piece is important in guiding the treatment so that the integrity of the piece remains.
Video consultations not only assist conservators, they also offer community members the opportunity to share personal reflections on objects and, in the case of loans, to preview objects they will soon receive for study and display. For example, a question about treatment of a doll’s hair led to a discussion by consultant Byron Red about the importance of hair for his people, describing how long hair can be a symbol of a long life and illustrate a person’s importance.
The video consultation for the SUCCM loan continued well into the afternoon, with discussion covering a range of objects and ideas, such as the designation of the front and back of certain garments, identification of tribal groups by the designs on arrow shafts, beaded “signatures” that indicate specific families, and an animal identification for a hide shirt.
Conservator Landis Smith and Mellon Fellow Angela Duckwall display a Ute Ghost Dance dress for
discussion. When and where the dress (16/5949) was made, and by whom, was not recorded when
it was purchased by the museum in 1929.
In concluding remarks both sides expressed gratitude and excitement. The familiarity between the two groups was evident from the cacophony of goodbyes and good wishes and arrangements for a follow-up consultation.
Part of the consultation’s success was due to technical capacity of video equipment that can provide live close-up views of the objects. When, for example, a consultant posed a question about the fringe construction on the Ghost Dance dress, the camera allowed for close examination by the consultants in Colorado. The equipment also enables the museum to save the sound and video from the consultation for documentation and to provide a copy to each consultant and the SUCCM.
Angela helps provide a close look at details of the Ghost Dance
dress in response to questions from dressmaker Elise Red
(Southern Ute), one of the consultants in Colorado. The fringe,
for example, was made using a method no longer seen.
Video consultation has an established history at NMAI, where it has been used since 2004 to enhance communication and education opportunities between NMAI and the Native communities the museum serves. In 2007, the museum initiated a pilot program called Cultural Conversations, through which tribal museums and schools can examine culturally relevant objects via video conferencing, to provide a forum for community members to share memories and histories around objects in the museum’s collections.
The conservation staff at NMAI also frequently conducts in-person consultations with Native communities, but these meetings can be more difficult to arrange and underwrite. Video consultations provide an alternative that will only become more advantageous as technology advances.
—Caitlin Mahony, NMAI conservation intern
Caitlin plans to pursue a Masters in Art Conservation