June 22, 2015

On the Inka Road: Conserving an Incensario

This ceramic (NMAI 20/6313) is one of approximately 150 objects within the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, opening at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington on Friday, June 26. This object, called an incensario, is from the Tiwanaku culture in the Katari Valley of Bolivia and dates to AD 600 to 900. 

Incensarios are incense burners or lamps, often associated with mortuary practices. Tiwanaku incensarios are characterized by their hyperboloid shape; scalloped rim; zoomorphic head and tail depicting a feline, condor, or llama; and elaborate design motifs, which portray geometric designs, feline faces, condors, and other beings of symbolic significance. 

Incensario 1 Incensario 2

Left to right: Tiwanaku incensario (incense burner, NMAI 20/6313), recto (front) and verso (back) before treatment. 


This incensario with feline head and tail and feline and condor design motifs was poorly reconstructed at some point before entering the collection of the Museum of the American Indian, now Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Sherds were misaligned, detracting from the ceramic’s beauty and detail. 

Incensario 3
Conservator (and blog-writer) Beth Holford cleaning the surface of the incensario with a soft brush.

In discussions with curator Ann McMullen and staff conservator Emily Kaplan, we decided that taking the ceramic apart and reconstructing it would enable the museum to present the incensario's original aesthetics without distraction. We anticipated that this process would take many hours in the Conservation Lab. Fortunately, I was able to start several months before the Conservation team began work on the rest of the objects for the Inka Road exhibition. 

Initial treatment included a surface cleaning and removal of old paint and fill material so that the adhesive holding the sherds together would be more accessible. Examination under ultraviolet light revealed an orange and white fluorescence, suggesting that at least one of the adhesives was likely shellac. Shellac can cause problems for conservators because it becomes less reversible as it ages. This was the case with this vessel, and it was necessary to use a mix of solvents as well as a paint stripper to soften the adhesive enough to deconstruct the ceramic. 

Incensario 4 Incensario 5Right to left: The left side of the incensario in visible light, then in ultraviolet light; the orange and white fluorescence was a clue that shellac might have been used to make earlier repairs. 

Once the ceramic was in pieces, I could remove the remaining adhesive residue mechanically— using a scalpel and working under magnification—so that the edges of the sherds were exposed and a more precise reconstruction could be accomplished. 

Incensario 6The object in pieces: all the adhesive has been removed from the ceramic.

Incensario 7

The vessel was reconstructed with a more conservation-appropriate adhesive—one that is chemically stable and readily reversible. Areas of loss were filled with a stable acrylic spackle. Select locations were painted with reversible acrylic paints in order to provide visitors to the exhibition with a more complete and aesthetically continuous appearance. 

These areas include locations where the original ceramic was missing, as well as locations where the slip design had been lost. Discussions with Ann McMullen helped identify areas of design that could be safely interpreted from similar designs on this vessel as well as others in this and other collections. Our goal was to preserve the incensario's cultural, historic, and aesthetic integrity, but we wouldn't mind if visitors were also thrilled by how wonderful it looks.

Incensario 8

Incensario 9
Incensario stages Tiwanaku-jaguar

Top right: Beth reconstructing the ceramic. 2nd row, left to right: The incensario before and after loss compensation and inpainting. 3rd row, left to right: The incensario before, during, and after treatment. Bottom row: The incensario as it appears in the companion book to the exhibition: Ceremonial incense burner in the form of a puma, AD 600–900. Tiwanaku, Bolivia. Ceramic, paint. 26 × 34.5 × 21.7 cm. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. (20/6313)

—Beth Holford

Beth Holford is an independent conservator with Holford Objects Conservation, LLC.

Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are courtesy of NMAI Conservation.

The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire will be on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from June 26, 2015, to June 1, 2018.

 #InkaRoad

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June 18, 2015

On the Great Inka Road: Conserving an Arybalo

Arybalo 1GuamanPomaJune


Left:
Inka arybalo (ceramic vessel, NMAI 14/5679) awaiting conservation. Right: Illustration of Hawkay Kuski, the rest from harvest, showing an Inka woman pouring a'qa (maize beer) from an arybalo into qeros (cups). Pen and ink drawing by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (Quechua, ca. 1535–1616). From El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government, 
1615). Royal Library, Copenhagen GKS 2232 4º.

 

During the last few years, conservators have been busy working on the objects that will be on view in the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, opening Friday, June 26, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Objects illustrated in the book that accompanies the exhibition—including this arybalo, or ceramic vessel—had to be conserved early so that they would look their best for museum photographer Ernest Amoroso. 

Arybalos, distinctive vessels found in every part of the Inka Empire, were typically used for holding maize beer—chicha in Spanish, or a'qa in Quechua, a language older than the Inka and still widely spoken in the Andes. At 112.5 cm tall, this particular arybalo (NMAI 14/5679) is one of the largest known in the world and would have helped people celebrate in a big way. Note the pointed base and flared neck, characteristics of all arybalos that made pouring from them easier. The handles were made to be strung with rope for easier carrying.  

In addition to the characteristics that made arybalos such great containers, this one had an unexpected feature: a round hole in the vessel's back. My colleagues in Conservation and I were perplexed until we took a closer look at the arybalo's cracks, which were visible as dark lines around the hole and through the designs on the front. 

Arybalo 2 Arybalo 3
Left: The back of the arybalo and the puzzling hole. Right: A crack running across the side of the arybalo and through the designs on the front. 

By studying the cracks, we realized that at an unknown date the vessel broke and was put back together using shellac and metal wire. This was a typical repair practice for antiquities collectors and restorers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Holes were drilled on the edges of broken pieces, then metal wire was inserted through the front and twisted in the interior, putting the pieces back together in a manner similar to stapling. The previous restorer filled in the cracks and the wired areas using plaster, then painted the repairs to match the surrounding ceramic. Over time, the color in the restored areas darkened and became distracting.

Arybalo 4

Arybalo conservation 5

Left: One of the wire repairs. Right: An earlier plaster restoration: the blue arrow points to painted plaster that darkened over time; the red arrow, to a wire mend and damaged ceramic exposed after the plaster repair was removed.


This arybalo, however, is too large for anyone to reach the repairs via the neck and twist the metal wires tight, so restorers cut an access hole into the back of the arybalo. The hole, therefore, was not part of the original function of the object. The metal-wire repair technique is no longer used by conservators because it damages original surface, and there are adhesives available today that are strong enough to hold ceramics. 

During this restoration, conservators removed the plaster repairs using cotton swabs dampened with water. Conservator Beth Holford and I then applied a conservation-grade acrylic spackle fill to the cracks and over the exposed metal wires. After making sure the fills were even with surrounding ceramic, we painted them to blend in with the original designs. 

Arybalo  6

Arybalo 7 Arybalo 8

Top: Conservator (and blog-writer) Fran Ritchie and conservation colleague Beth Holford working on the arybalo. Above: A new repair made with conservation-grade acrylic spackle, before and after it has been painted to blend in with the original pattern. 

Total time spent treating the arybalo to this point? More than 50 hours. Come see the conserved arybalo in The Great Inka Road, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from June 26, 2015, to June 1, 2018!

Team arybalo NMAI 145679
Top, from left to right:
 Conservator Emily Kaplan, Collections specialist Veronica Quiguango, mountmaker Shelly Uhlir, Fran Ritchie, and Collections specialist Tony Williams prepare to transport the arybalo, now ready for its close-up, to the museum's photo studio. Above: Inka arybalo, AD 1450–1532. Peru. Ceramic, paint. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. (14/5679) 

—Fran Ritchie

Fran Ritchie worked on The Great Inka Road as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian. She is currently a conservator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are courtesy of NMAI Conservation.

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May 19, 2015

Preparing Objects for "The Great Inka Road": A Decorative Llama Neck Collar

We have been llama-mad lately in the museum’s conservation lab, as we prepare for the upcoming exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire. Just as the network that became the Great Inka Road passed through many time periods and many different Andean cultures, the exhibition will present a cross-section of life all along the road, before, during, and after the Inka Empire, with a focus on the empire's engineering accomplishments.

In preparing objects for the exhibition, the conservation team learned about life in the Andes, including just how important llamas were and are in Andean culture. During the Inka Empire llama caravans were essential for moving goods on the road between relatively isolated communities, and llamas still play this important role in Andean life today. Llamas provide wool for clothing and other warm, beautiful textiles and are a valued source of food. Because of their important place in Andean society, llamas are also highly revered in religious ceremonies. Figures of llamas were made of stone, shell, gold, and silver in past times. Llamas are still often depicted in fine, colorful weavings, and llamas themselves are adorned to take part in festivals and other special occasions.

Enter the llama neck collar, or pectoral. 

In the Andes, decorative chest ornaments are one way people adorn llamas in caravans or for ceremonies, and this particular collar is a fairly typical example. The materials used—sheep’s wool, recycled machine-woven wool and cotton cloth, and polyester-cotton sewing thread—indicate that this collar likely was made in the mid-20th century.

When the collar came into the conservation lab, it was a little worse for wear. Exposure to moths and poor storage before the collar entered the museum's collection brought damage to some areas, giving the collar an unkempt appearance. Some yarns in the collar’s fringe were literally hanging by a thread! With careful attention and patience, I realigned the collar’s disorganized fringe and strengthened weak yarns with fine silk thread. I also reinforced fragile, moth-damaged areas by stitching them to cotton support patches. 

Snapshots
Swatches of material for patching and supporting the llama collar are kept with reference photographs. This provides an accurate record for future conservators of the treatment and materials used. Photo by Claudia Lima, NMAI.


The overall result is subtle, yet very satisfying. The conservation treatment allows the collar to be handled carefully without worrying about pieces simply dropping off. The treatment also restores some dignity to the collar: Now our eyes are first drawn to its vibrant embroidery rather than to areas of damage. I spent a total of 67 hours working on this piece, and every second was worth it.

Llama collar before treatment, front Llama collar before treatment, back

Llama collar after treatment, front Llama collar after treatment, back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Embroidered llama pectoral. Mid-20th c., Peru. NMAI 24/5505. Top, left to right: The front and back of the decorative collar before conservation. Bottom: The front and back of the collar after the fringe has been aligned and strengthened and other worn areas have been stabilized. Photos by Kate Blair, NMAI. 

The llama neck collar is just one of many textiles I have had the privilege of working on for The Great Inka Road. Many of the pieces are archaeological and hundreds of years old. Seeing their complexity and fineness leaves me in awe of the great skill of the weavers who made them.

The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire opens June 26, 2015, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. Follow the hashtag #InkaRoad on social media to learn more about the exhibition.

—Kate Blair

Kate Blair is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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October 03, 2014

Behind Every Great Object, There’s a Great Mount

By Joshua Stevens

The little things in life make all the difference, and those who work behind the scenes building the museum’s exhibitions know it all too well. Every small detail has an impact on a visitor’s experience, which translates to the success of an installation. Yet these details are also those that for many of us go unseen.

November approaches, and with it the unveiling of NMAI New York’s newest exhibition, Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family. Staff members across the museum and outside specialists are working to ensure that each piece in the exhibition shines flawlessly, telling the story not only of a family, but of a highly refined art form. 

Kelly McHugh, an NMAI conservator, shared photos from the museum’s Mount Shop showing the custom-made brass components that will be used to support the nearly 300 pieces of contemporary Navajo jewelry the exhibition contains—rings, bracelets, necklaces, and a variety of other jeweled accessories—as well as objects from the museum's collections that provide historical context. The snapshots below show the many different mounts the exhibition requires. Specific exhibit case numbers are written alongside the mounts on the ethafoam that supports them while they are in transit from the museum’s collections, conservation, and research facility in Maryland to the museum in New York. 

Glittering World object mounts 1

Glittering World object mounts 2Glittering World object mounts 3

Glittering World object mounts 4
Object mounts made by master mountmaker Bob Fuglestad and his colleagues Bill Mead, Bill Bowser, and Jon Pressler, and by the museum's staff mountmaker, Shelly Uhlir, for the exhbition Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family. The mounts were constructed at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Maryland, then grouped by exhibit case for installation at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Photos by Duane Blue Spruce, NMAI.


More than 350 mounts were made for Glittering World, most by master mountmaker Bob Fuglestad and his team of Bill Mead, Bill Bowser, and Jon Pressler. The museum's staff mountmaker, Shelly Uhlir, made a number of mounts, as well. Shelly describes what the project entailed:

The majority of the mounts are crafted from silver-soldered brass, which is then covered with multiple layers of acrylic coating to make sure the objects have a safe place to rest. Each mount is custom designed and fit specifically to each piece of jewelry, then painted to conceal the work. 

They are hand-made works of art in themselves, but the best mounts are the ones the viewer doesn’t easily see!

Glittering World debuts Thursday, November 13, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and will run until January 2016. The NMAI blog will continue to post exclusive behind-the-scenes content as the opening nears. You can also view the exhibition trailer and join the conversation with the museum on Facebook and Twitter, #GlitteringWorld. Let us know if there’s something you want to know! 


Joshua Stevens is Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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June 19, 2013

Written In Rock: Reflections on Our Time in New Mexico

 

Reflections 003
Written in Rock, a conservation and cultural exchange project, has brought together people from Azerbaijan; Hopi and the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Santo Domingo ; and the Smithsonian. Abo, New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

By John Fryar

I am an enrolled tribal member of the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico and a retired criminal investigator. For many years I’ve specialized in and dedicated myself to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites, Native American burials and human remains, items of cultural patrimony, and other artifacts left by our ancestors.

Earlier this spring a group of people from Azerbaijan made their first trip to the United States to visit the Pueblo communities of New Mexico, which like their own communities, have a unique relationship with the ancient rock carvings of their country. These lasting footprints of our ancestors are better known among conservationists as petroglyphs. The Azerbaijani participants in Written in Rock included Elvin Abdullayev, Diana Farajova, Humay Mammadzada, Namil Mammadov, Nurana Shahbazova, and Novruz Pashayev. Here they met with their counterparts Ann Brierty of Laguna, Lorraine Caté of Santo Domingo, Lee Francis of Laguna, Harold Joseph of Hopi, Jonathan Sims of Acoma, and me. In addition meeting in New Mexico were Malahat Farajova, director, and Rehman Abdullayev, staff member, of the Gobustan National Preserve, Azerbaijan; Larry Loendorf and Laurie White, of the non-profit organization Sacred Sites; and Claire Eckert, of the Smithsonian's Office of Policy and Analysis, and Carolyn McClellan, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. 

The focus of the Written in Rock program is to bring people together in a cultural exchange program geared towards the protection and preservation of petroglyphs (rock art). As with the Pueblo participants’ trip to Azerbaijan in October 2012, this week was a whirlwind of activity.

Our first meeting was at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where Marth Becktell, museum director, gave us a brief overview of the cultural center, the museum, and the exhibits. We were provided with a tour of the exhibit 100 years of State and Federal Policy: The Impact on Pueblo Nations. The tour was led by Written in Rock Pueblo participants Lee Francis and Jonathan Simms who were involved with the creation of the exhibit, and Lorraine Caté, who was recently hired as an educational coordinator at the cultural center. The exhibit was a wonderful learning experience for everyone, and the in-depth commentary and knowledge of the Pueblo guides regarding the displays was powerful. It created a greater understanding of how government policies have impacted and shaped the Pueblo world today.

We had another brief tour of the exhibit A:shiwi A:wan Ulohnanne: The Zuni World, a Zuni Map Art Exhibition, which features a Zuni map-painting that depicts the Colorado Plateau as a cultural and sacred landscape. The exhibit is intended to open the mind to a world where all things are living. We finished our visit with a tour of the permanent exhibit titled, Our Land, Our Culture, Our Story, which provides a brief historical overview of the Pueblo world, along with a contemporary exhibit of original artwork and craftsmanship from each of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. We had experienced a similar exhibit at the Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum, where we were shown examples of weaving techniques and materials from various older time periods and the newer contemporary patterns exhibited in Azerbaijani rugs and carpets.

We concluded the day with a trip to the Petroglyph National Monument, which is located within Albuquerque's city limits and illustrates the impact that an urban environment can have upon a cultural landscape. We discussed the delicate balance of trying to preserve and protect these ancient markings and sacred areas from the encroachment of today’s urban dwellers. Sometimes the attention paid to an area, such as the Petroglyph Monument, has unintended consequences, such as being loved too much by overuse. This is in stark contrast to the petroglyphs we saw at Gobustan, which aren't threatened by the encroachment of urban sprawl (yet).

The following day would find us experiencing places such as Gran Quivira and Abo, research sites within the Salinas National Monument. We were provided a tour of Gran Quivira where we learned of the Spanish Colonial quest for dominance over the original inhabitants of the area. Today the Spanish mission still stands tall over the rubble mounds of the original pueblo. At Abo, we experienced rock paintings that for many members of the group were very spiritual. The majority of these drawings and paintings were associated with salt. Unbeknownst to most members of the group prior to viewing the paintings, there are areas a relatively short distance away where salt was traditionally gathered. Unfortunately, these salt lakes are now located on private land and are inaccessible for gathering salt. In Azerbaijan we had also learned of salt gathering and trade routes. In 2010 archaeologists published research showing that the Duzdagi salt deposits, located in the Araxes Valley in Azerbaijan, hold the oldest known salt mine in the world. Intensive salt production was carried out at this site at least as early as 3500 B.C. 

Reflections 004
Listening to a guide at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our trip to Acoma was surely a cultural experience for our Azerbaijan guests. Here we visited Acoma Pueblo, purported to be the oldest continually inhabited village in the United States. (Of course our Hopi brother would respectfully disagree. <Smile.>) Acoma is located in west central New Mexico on a mesa 365 feet above the valley floor. The name Acoma is from the Acoma and Spanish word acoma, or acú, which means "the place that always was" or "People of the White Rock."

In 1598, during the Spanish conquest of what is now the southwestern United States, Juan de Oñate took revenge on Acoma for the killing of his nephew and 11 of his men. Oñate burned most of the village and killed more than 600 people and imprisoned approximately 500 others. The prisoners were forced into slavery, and men over 25 years old had their right foot amputated. Today holes in the cemetery wall on the south side can still be seen. These holes were placed in the wall for the Acoma slaves who were taken south into what is now Mexico and did not return.

While at Acoma we were treated by the family of Jonathan Simms to a traditional Pueblo feast. This consisted in part of roast lamb, lamb stew, roast squash, squash stew, homemade tamales, red and green chilis, oven bread, and Indian tea. Interestingly, the meal was somewhat similar to the meal we were provided when we visited the sheep herders’ camp in Azerbaijan. Both were such treats! It was great to see our Azerbaijan brothers and sisters enjoying chili from the Southwest. During this meal our Azerbaijan guests provided everyone with a sampling of dried fruits and nuts in an arrangement of candles and newly planted grass. They had brought these gifts to share with us as a celebration of Novruz, the Azerbaijan spring holiday that takes place in March of each year. This was a true blending of cultures by the sharing of food and traditions from different parts of the world. 

Reflections 005
Hiking the Tsankawi in New Mexico, March 2013. Photo by John Fryar.

Our last day in the field found us at Tsankawi, part of the Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. We walked trails that were cut and worn deep into the rock by their continued use from ancient times. We climbed wooden ladders to the top of the mesa, where we could stand and witness the beauty of the surrounding area and cultural landscape. We watched as the pollen from the juniper trees would “pop” in the breeze, making it appear like a puff of smoke rising from the valley floor. We watched as the crows and a hawk watched us from above. This was a spiritual place to many within the group.

 

Reflections 006
"Graduation Day" for participants of the conservation and cultural exchange project Written in Rock. Photo by John Fryar.

Our hike on the loop trail through the Ancestral Pueblo site provided an opportunity for our Azerbaijan guests to see what a plaza looks like in ruins. The previous day we had been able to show them a plaza at Acoma still in use today. They could visualize what Tsankawi might have looked like had the buildings still been standing at this ancient place. We were able to show them many examples of pottery shards and pieces of broken arrowheads and stone tools that were still on site. They were able to witness sacred areas and participate in prayers and the offering of corn meal at this place. We also witnessed the many examples of rock writings, some telling of migration, some of settlement, and some of spirituality. For many of us, the day could have all been spent at this place.

As in Azerbaijan, we had an opportunity to make a presentation as a group. This time it was at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Pueblo participant Lorraine Caté, who is also student at the school, made the arrangements for the presentation. We had a warm reception from students and staff, and the presentation provided our Azerbaijan colleagues an opportunity to showcase their country and Pueblo participants a chance to reflect on the Written in Rock program.

We ended the week with a wonderful presentation by Nancy Olson, a rock art specialist, who had recorded petroglyphs over much of Pajarito Mesa, in the area where Tsankawi is located. Over many years she has compiled drawings and documentation that will benefit researchers for years to come.

We spent the rest of our time together talking about the future and what we wish to accomplish with the knowledge we all gained from the Written in Rock project. All participants greatly benefited from the program because of this knowledge, the cultural aspects of the project, and our greater understanding of the similarities and differences of our respective cultures. 

Written in Rock is a partnership of the Gobustan Preserve, the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis, and the National Museum of the American Indian, and is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums. 

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What a great project. Native diplomacy at its best.

This is a bold project. Nice!

International Conference on: Conservation of Architectural Heritage.
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23 - 27 November 2015
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