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November 27, 2012

It's All Connected: California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | The Collections Visit, Consultation, and Workshop

In 2009 and 2010, basketweaver Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault); cultural heritage specialist Robert McConnell (Yurok); and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), a former summer intern at the National Museum of the American Indian, joined members of the museum's Conservation Office in a program centered on Northern California basketry and its broader cultural context. This is the third post in a series that presents multiple perspectives on their collaboration. To read earlier posts in the series, see:

1. Introduction to the Project, Acknowledgments & Contributors 
2. NMAI Internship Programs 

Participants in the workshop gather in the Conservation Laboratory to discuss the museum's Northern California basketry collections. From left to right: Briannon Fraley, Luba Dogvan Nurse, Stephanie Cassidy, Ainslie Harrison, Francis Lukezic, Marian Kaminitz. NMAI Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, Maryland, 2009.


In October 2009, following informal emails and phone calls, a formal letter of invitation was sent to Robert and Deborah McConnell and Briannon Fraley for a three-day consultation and workshop that December at the museum's Cultural Resources Center. The visit would focus primarily on Northern California basketry materials and weaving techniques, as well as the cultural context and issues of access to state and federal land to gather materials. The letter explained that as an institution training many conservation interns and fellows, NMAI endeavors to teach a comprehensive approach to conservation that acknowledges that the objects within the museum’s collection are not static, but are tied to living cultures. Through the consultation we, as conservators, hoped to deepen our understanding of their cultural items in the following ways: 

With the consultants and conservation staff, fellows and interns, to look at and discuss the Northern California items selected for Infinity of Nations, a permanent exhibition that opened at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in fall 2010, and other items from the consultants’ communities in the NMAI collections.

To discuss the way basketry is made from the consultants’ perspective including the cultural, political, and technical aspects on gathering materials, how materials need to be processed for weaving, and traditional weaving technologies.

To provide a hands-on opportunity for the conservation staff, fellows, and interns to learn from Ms. McConnell and Ms. Fraley how to weave a basket in the Hoopa tradition. 

The letter further outlined the financial details: the museum would offer each participant an honorarium, would cover all transportation costs, hotel accommodations, per diem, and reimbursement for weaving materials.

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Susan Heald discusses Northern California basketry items selected for the exhibition Infinity of Nations with Deborah McConnell, Robert McConnell and Briannon Fraley.
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Deborah McConnell demonstrates preparing woodwardia fern for basketry construction with Kelly McHugh looking on.

The schedule was left flexible to allow for change as needed. On the first day, Ms. Fraley gave a presentation on materials used for basketry; her work was augmented by discussions from the McConnells. We viewed a video produced in the 1990s by California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA)“Through the Eyes of a Basketweaver” describes the life of Vivien Hailstone (1913–2000), a master basketweaver of Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa descent and member of the Hupa tribe who was instrumental in continuing and teaching the weaving traditions of her communities. The afternoon was spent examining and discussing Northern California and Great Basin baskets. 

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Briannon Fraley (right) demonstrates pounding alder bark dyestuff to Anne Gunnison and Francis Lukezic (in the background).
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Briannon Fraley shows Angela Duckwall and Luba Dogvan Nurse how a Hoopa ceremonial skirt and apron in the museum's collections are properly worn.















On the second day, a hands-on basketry workshop led by Ms. McConnell and Ms. Fraley gave the conservation staff, fellows, and interns the opportunity to prepare materials and construct a small basket. It not only allowed the participants to learn about basketry-construction technology, but it also imparted a new respect for the immense skill required to make a beautiful, functional basket—a level of skill that can be easily underappreciated when working in a museum with thousands of beautifully made baskets.

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Kelly McHugh demonstrates basketry repair technique to Briannon Fraley.

On day three, Mr. McConnell gave a presentation on revitalizing the Yurok canoe tradition and discussed issues of water and land resources and imposed restrictions. Following a potluck lunch honoring our consultants, the conservation staff discussed methods we use to reshape and stabilize basketry. We looked at native iris fiber Ms. McConnell had brought with her as a possible repair material for broken baskets alongside materials used by conservators such as Japanese tissue, Tyvek (high-density spunbonded olefin sheet), and both natural and synthetic adhesives.  


Luba Nurse, one of the Mellon fellows attending the consultation and workshop, summarized her experience as follows:

I came to the fellowship inspired by and eager to learn more about the collaborative approach to conservation of material culture, and to explore the different ways for conservators to serve communities. This consultation provided me with such an opportunity.

The format of this consultation was very effective because it combined object-focused discussions, presentations by both conservators and Native consultants and a hands-on practical weaving workshop. I benefited greatly from the knowledge that the Native consultants and my colleagues shared during the three days we spent together. The weaving workshop session taught by Deborah McConnell using traditional plant materials was key in my understanding of material properties and the condition of the baskets in the collection. What I learned from the consultants about the spiritual meaning of the baskets and their role in communal events informed me later, when I conserved a Hoopa ceremonial skirt and apron and prepared them for display, which resulted in a more appropriate treatment that recognized their significance and role as ceremonial garments to the originating community.

—Susan Heald, NMAI

All photos courtesy of the NMAI Conservation Office. 

Next: Practices and Beliefs


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