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Spruce Root Basketry Conservation Workshop

by Erika Brown, Registrar, Ketchikan Museums

Recently I had the good fortune to attend the 2016 Museums Alaska & Alaska Historical Society joint annual conference in Juneau, Alaska. This generous opportunity was made possible through a grant from the Donna Matthews Professional Development Fund. My time in Juneau was full of conference sessions, visiting local museums, meeting other museum professionals, and of course eating good food! Before the conference sessions started I had the joy of participating in the Spruce Root Basketry Conservation Workshop hosted by Ellen Carrlee, State Conservator for the Alaska State Museum.

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Part of the Sept 21 basketry group: L to R Liana Wallace, Steven Villano, Jennifer Treadway, & Judy Munns.

I have had an interest in basketry starting with classes I took in the 1990s at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska. I now have the honor of working for the Ketchikan Museums, which is comprised of two museums: The Tongass Historical Museum and the Totem Heritage Center. Between the two facilities, in addition to other activities, we care for a large collection of baskets and host Native art classes including weaving. Baskets in our permanent and education collections are available to researchers and students alike.

As is common, our baskets are donated in a variety of conditions and display an assortment of past repair techniques.  With this workshop I was excited for the opportunity to learn a method of stabilizing damaged baskets that was safe, reversible, and an obtainable method whether you have a conservation background or not.

On the day of the workshop, I found the classroom was ready with the necessary supplies and a basketry piece from the Alaska State Museum’s Study Collection. Through our random choice of seating, (I choose my coveted corner seat) I worked with a Tlingit spruce root lid where the rim and the top of the lid had separated. Through happenstance the piece I worked with had previously been used as a teaching piece and I was able to learn firsthand how easy it was to reverse the repair technique I was going to learn.

Throughout the day we learned how to create Japanese tissue mends also known as “Frankenstein” mends to bridge across broken sections of weaving. Initially the Japanese tissue paper was dampened and a section of fibers were coaxed loose and rolled into thin rolls that taper on each end. Definitely a lesson on practice makes perfect!

After an army of Frankensteins was assembled, it was time for the fun part of applying the mends across the damaged areas of the basket. This technique effectively creates a bridge across the broken stitches to temporarily secure the two sections back together. The Frankensteins were dampened with a wheat starch paste mixture to make an easily reversible adhesive. The coated piece was then coaxed into place along the damaged weaving stitches and allowed to dry. Ellen pointed out each individual mend is ultimately weak and cannot support the repair itself; it is the combined effort of multiple mends that stabilizes the basket. After applying and allowing time to dry, the Frankenstein mends can be colored to minimize their visual starkness. Color matching was an area where I admitted defeat and decided to practice making more Frankensteins instead!

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Tour with Ellen Carrlee and baskets in the collection of the Alaska State Museum.

After an afternoon tour in collections storage to view new and old repairs to baskets and discuss the pros and cons of various methods, I must admit that I am comforted to know this style of repair and stabilization has a minimal chance of hurting the basket and these actions will not end up giving future conservators heartburn.

In the end, the mending technique was manageable and attainable to people with different knowledge bases. In fact, our class on that sunny Wednesday was comprised of conservators, weavers, and other museum professionals from around the state. It was heartening to listen to the conversations and experiences expressed throughout the day. I am very grateful to have spent this day with Ellen and the other talented classmates.

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