The Role of Collaboration in Art Conservation

The Role of Collaboration in Art Conservation

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Image 1: A northwest coast basket from Agua Caliente Cultural Museum collections prior to conservation by a UCLA/Getty Master's student


Image 2: A close-up image of the basket next to a diagram of the cockleshell weave and the strawberry weave 


Image 3: Tlingit baskets are woven upright while Haida baskets are woven upside down.  Due to this, the jog created with a change in stitch or color is characteristic. The "jog-down" in the basket from Agua Caliente Cultural Museum collections is usually attributed to the Tlingit.


Image 4: A close-up image of the stitches on the basket from Agua Caliente Cultural Museum collections

Through examining an object, a conservator may learn a great deal about its tangible or physical properties, such as materials used, manufacturing techniques, and issues of damage.  However, this examination may not reveal its intangible or non-physical properties, such as cultural use or where it was made.  By collaborating with experts, multiple and varying viewpoints may contribute to understanding the life history of an object.

However, in some cases, a definitive conclusion may not be possible.  

Where was this basket made?

This is a common question conservators will ask while examining an artwork or artifact.  In the case of this basket, opinions are divided on which part of the Northwest Coast this basket is from and which cultural group made the basket.

"…both the Tlingit and Haida (from Southeast Alaska) used spruce root extensively, as well as the two patterns of dyed decoration: strawberry weave and cockle shell weave" (Image 2).
– Steve Henrickson
   Curator, Alaska State Museum 

"I would identify this basket as Tlingit…because of the jog-down at the base…" (Image 3).
– Rebecca Andrews
   Collections Manager, Burke Museum, Washington

"This basket is probably not from the Tlingit or a neighboring Northwest Coast tribe…I would put it in Oregon or southern Washington."
– Bryn Potter
   Independent Curator, Basketry Specialist
   BBP Museum Consulting

"If the stitches go up on the left and down on the right, then it is probably Haida" (Image 4).
– Teri Rofkar
   Tlingit weaver, Alaska 

Cultural attribution of objects with unknown makers is often difficult and complex.  Cultural traditions, such as basketry weaving, are rarely static and particular to a single group.  Intermarriage, sharing, and borrowing of techniques and designs are common occurrences.  Additionally, baskets have a life of their own.  Through trade and the tourist market, a basket may be created in one region yet purchased and used in another.  This is particularly true of the Tlingit, who were traders and traveled a great deal.  This cycle of travel and changing of hands may be repeated multiple times throughout the history of an object.  Through research and observation, several clues may help direct the attribution of an object.  In the case of this basket, the majority of expert opinions indicate it to be from the Northwest Coast and made by either the Haida or Tlingit.  However, one should keep in mind that consensus was not achieved on which culture the basket is from.  The attribution of objects with unknown makers is an educated guess, and there is always the possibility of mistaken identification.

– Lily Doan