July 29, 2016

Becoming a Conservator: An Interview with Marian A. Kaminitz, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has two public facilities, the Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. A third facility, the Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, is home for the museum’s collections. This post, the first in a series of interviews of staff members who work at the CRC, explores the preparation that goes into a career in object conservation.

Also in this series: Logistics and Detail: Museum Registration and Perspectives on Museum Archives.

Describe your background and why you went into museum work.

I’ve always been very drawn to working with my hands and enjoy working with materials that were more than an artistic expression—materials that were made to be used by people. I was really drawn to materials from North and South America that were made by Native people. That’s what brought me in. I also really liked doing crafts—metalworking, basket-making—so it was kind of a natural.

Even so, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. Starting college in the early 1970s, I thought I wanted to work with textile technology and chemistry, but I realized that I didn’t want to do that completely. I also remember thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab coat, which is kind of ironic because conservators always wear lab coats. I then got interested in textile design and arts and crafts.

At the University of Tennessee, the Crafts Department had a cottage industry project where raw materials were taken to Appalachia and traded with people there who could weave or make pottery. The products came back from them and were then sold. So I changed majors to the Crafts Department and took jewelry-making, pottery, weaving, and textile design. That made me decide that I wanted to work more with the products rather than make the products.

From there, I decided to go to art school and went to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, which has since merged with other art colleges. I was introduced to working in a gallery and had an internship in textile conservation at the de Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park. Those experiences made me decide that I wanted to be a conservator. In the ’70s, the federal government also had the CETA [Comprehensive Employment Training Act] program, which was an employment training opportunity to train workers and provide them jobs in public service.

Through CETA, I was hired to work in the Oakland Museum’s History Department. I also volunteered one day a week at the University of California’s Lowie Museum, since renamed the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and worked with their conservator. After those experiences, I decided to move back to Tennessee to continue to fulfill prerequisites such as additional chemistry courses for graduate school in conservation. I entered the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 1981 and finished three years later. During that time I had an internship, and in the summers I went on various digs in Colorado, Cyprus, and Portugal as a site conservator.

For my third-year graduate school internship, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Objects Conservation Lab, after which I completed my degree. I also took an advanced year as the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Pacific Regional Conservation Center in Honolulu. Then I got a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I was there for six years as an assistant conservator in the Anthropology Department. Concurrently, I began co-teaching a class at New York University in Ethnographic and Archaeological Organic Materials. I was hired by NMAI in July 1991, and began work at the museum while it was still in the Audubon Terrace building in Harlem, then at the Research Branch in the Bronx, before moving to the D.C. area in February 1999. I’ve been at the CRC ever since. So, that’s my history. 

Kaminitz 10:8708, Photo by Ernest Amoroso
Mixteca (Mixtec) shield, AD 1400–1500. Puebla, Mexico. Wood,turquoise and other stone, tree pitch. 32.5 x 32.3 x 2 cm. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. (10/8708)

Why the National Museum of the American Indian? 

It was the right place to go. The museum mirrored my interests in understanding Indigenous people as living populations, and I could support that through conservation, which spoke very strongly to me.

What does your average workday look like?

To tell you about my average day, it's important to tell you about the department here. We have a very talented group of staff and we’ve worked together for over 20 years. There are three other conservators on staff—Susan Heald, Emily Kaplan, and Kelly McHugh—and a mount maker, Shelly Uhlir. In addition to the permanent positions, we have four fellows each year, and in the summer and fall we have interns. Summer interns are either pre-graduate school students or in graduate programs. In the fall, we have interns who want to go into a graduate program. The fellows are more advanced and have finished a conservation program. In addition to these people, we oftentimes have contractors working here to prepare objects going out on loan. It’s a busy lab.

As the head of department, I provide people with what they need to do their work. It is important to note that much of the work here is done in collaboration with Native artists. I’m more on the logistics end of all of that facilitating, rather than doing the content end. The “doing” happens through the excellent staff, fellows, and interns. This year we have a large loan going to National Park Service for Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. For that loan, we will have some collaborative opportunities with conservators who have expertise on southwestern materials. The collaborations with Indigenous artists are also great experiences for our fellows. The lab is a very active place.

If you had to pick, what is your favorite object in the collections?

There are a lot of favorites—we have an amazing collection—but one of the first objects I worked on when I was hired was a shield that has a lot of very tiny turquoise tesserae inlayed in a disc shape. I’ve had a long history with that piece. It is going to be loaned to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition in 2017. It’s also previously been loaned to the L.A. County Museum of Art. It has a very fancy travel case that it goes in, just for itself. I'm rather attached to that one.

Could you give a piece of advice to readers who might be aspiring museum professionals?

I’d just say go where your heart tells you to go. If you are following that trajectory, you will end up in the right place.

Thank you.

-Lillia McEnaney, NMAI

Lillia McEnaney is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology and Religious Studies at Hamilton College; she will graduate in spring 2017. Lillia is a research assistant for Hamilton’s Religious Studies Department, the blog intern for the Council for Museum Anthropology, the webmaster for Art/Place Gallery, a content contributor for Center for Art Law, and an intern for SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone. She is a summer collections management intern at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center.

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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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