September 28, 2015

Always Becoming: Nora Naranjo-Morse's Vision of Change and Renewal

Since the summer of 2007, Always Becoming—a group of clay sculptures artist Nora Naranjo-Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) describes as a family—has graced the landscape of the National Museum of the American Indian. Nora's work, selected unanimously by the museum from proposals offered by Native artists from throughout the Western Hemisphere, has become a popular, and unusually humble, Washington landmark. 

From the beginning, Nora embraced the idea that the environment would collaborate in shaping her sculptures, although she and members of her non-metaphorical family have returned to the museum each year to provide stewardship for the work. Between now and October 1, they are here to see Always Becoming into a new phase. "The proposed second phase allows us not only to revisit the original concept of Always Becoming," she says, "but to understand and articulate the knowledge of change and renewal." 

The museum will update Nora's photo diary whenever she takes a break to talk about the work. —NMAI

Day 1—A new generation of people is working on Always Becoming, phase 2. Benito Steen was 16 when he worked on the original project. He is now 26. Eliza, my daughter, and her partner John Cross are also on the team, and they bring their important skill sets. It's exciting to be back and to be looking and working on Always Becoming again, it's like coming back to family. —Nora Naranjo–Morse 

Always Becoming day 1-1

Day 2—Forming foundations, collecting materials, connecting community. —NNM

Always Becoming day 2-1

Always Becoming day 2-2

Always Becoming day 2-3Day 3—The cool air and encouragement of passersby made today an easy and inspiring work day. NNM


IMG_1748 IMG_1751

Day 6—Part of the Always Becoming team went on a collecting trip to gather poles from a 100-year-old tobacco barn 50 miles south of the museum. Glenn Burlack, a museum staff person, generously offered his time and efforts to help us locate and collect 15 poles to use in the sculpture known as Taa. 
While part of the team traveled to cull poles, other Always Becoming team members stayed on site building the new sculptures. Our work, all of it, is labor intensive, but truly satisfying.

Always Becoming 6-1 Always Becoming 6-2

Always becoming 6-3 Always Becoming 6-4 Always Becoming 6-5

Day 7—Benito's blueprints and collections of clay.

Always Becoming 7-1 Always Becoming 7-2 Always Becoming 7-3

Days 10 & 11—Moving to the tee pee form known as Taa, John and Benito worked shaving and charring the inner ring of posts. 

Eliza, Emily, and I worked on adding more clay balls and refining the lines in the mud forms.

Always Becoming 10-11-1 Always Becoming 10-11-3 Always Becoming 10-11-4Always Becoming 10-11-2

Always Becoming 10-11-5 Always Becoming 10-11-6 Always Becoming 10-11-7 Always Becoming 10-11-8 Always Becoming 10-11-9


Photos by Nora Naranjo-Morse and her family
and colleagues on the Always Becoming project team. 



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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.


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June 18, 2015

On the Great Inka Road: Conserving an Arybalo

Arybalo 1GuamanPomaJune

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. 

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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