(Practical Approaches to Technical Research in Low-Tech Settings) Small Museum Research Strategies in Alaska by Ellen Carrlee

By Alyssa Rina posted 06-04-2019 16:20


In Small Museum Research Strategies in Alaska, Alaska State Museum’s conservator, Ellen Carrlee discusses five collaborative initiatives that have become resources for colleagues and small museums with no access to analytical equipment and limited research funds. The projects include, Alaska Fur ID Project; What’s that White Stuff, Caring for Alaskan Artifacts; Label Adhesive Testing; Chilkat Dye Working Group; and PEG for Waterlogged Basketry. Most of these projects evolved into online blog-styled databases, making the information widely accessible. 

According to Carrlee, successfully identifying fur on Tlingit objects can be twofold: (1) it assists the curatorial team in correct material attribution, and (2) provides important context since Tlingit people have clan and ancestral relations to specific animals. The Alaska Fur ID project began with identifying white fur on Tlingit regalia from Yakutat yet culminated into an online database characterizing 47 different species. Together Carrlee and Lauren Horelick (object conservator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) recorded maximum diameter of hair, the length and diameter of the medulla, the color, scale shape, and patterns. They also created scale casts with Duco cement. The hair samples and scale casts were analyzed using a polarized light microscope, using reflective light to assess the scale casts. To view their database, visit: https://alaskafurid.wordpress.com/

Ellen Carrlee and Crista Pack develop What’s That White Stuff? Caring for Alaskan Artifacts, an image-dense blog that provides a list of potential “white stuff” on a variety of materials. The blog developed after many inquires from constituents with limited technical training and/or equipment to identify “white stuff” on their collection. The blog characterizes the “white stuff” as natural to the material, natural to the deterioration, premature deterioration, intervention during useful life (i.e.: ceremonially applied oils), and intervention during museum life (i.e.: museum-applied coatings). Carrlee and Pack also made their own salty potsherds and worked with the Exhibits department to create Byne’s disease on seashells using oak shavings. To learn more about the project, visit: https://alaskawhitestuffid.wordpress.com/

Working with Samantha Springer, Conservator at the Portland Museum of Art and Anna Marie Weiss then Queen’s University graduate student, Carrlee developed a blog testing 12 different adhesives alternatives for Paraloid B-72 as a barrier layer and top coat for labeling. The 12 adhesives were applied to wood, metal, stone, bone, and unglazed ceramics. They independently subjected the adhesives to a variety of practical tests, like flooding them with solvent, artificially ageing them in the oven, and using a toothbrush to abrade the surface. Their results were compiled online, and they created a poster for the Alaska Anthropology Conference to make museum professionals aware of alternatives for labeling. To learn about the adhesives used and their results, visit: https://ellencarrlee.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/collections-labeling-alternate-adhesive-testing/

As part of the Chilkat Dye Working Group, Carrlee is currently collaborating with 20 Northwest Coast weavers, conservators, and scientists to understand the technology, structure, and dyes used in Chilkat robes. The Alaska State Museum is a part of the Pacific Northwest Conservation Science Consortium, so Carrlee works closely with Dr. Tami Lasseter Clare, chemist at the Portland State University. Dr. Clare received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to analyze cultural materials from five museums: The Alaska State Museum, Portland Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington Libraries. The project was cowritten with Tlingit weaver Liana Wallace. Wallace collects reference dye materials and sends them to Dr. Clare for analysis. The working group meets monthly, and weavers discuss the materials used in making Chilkat robes based on what they know from families, their communities, and from their own experience weaving.  All in all, this project highlights the collaboration with Northwest Coast communities and the partnership with a larger institution. To learn more about the project, visit: https://ellencarrlee.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/chilkat-dye-project/

Lastly, Carrlee spoke about collaborated with Seattle-based object conservator, Dana Senge in figuring out the best treatment approaches for waterlogged basketry. Together they compiled an annotated bibliography of about 125 articles that use polyethylene glycol (PEG) for waterlogged wood. They also compiled information from about 22 websites and visited labs that were using PEG but had not published. The annotated bibliography and information compiled from the websites were made accessible online. After initial research, Carrlee and Senge then tested different molecular weights of PEG on several dip net knots. They subjected the knots to heated vs unheated PEG and soaked them for different times to gather qualitative ways to treat waterlogged basketry. These results were published in AIC Object Specialty Group Postprints, volume 17, 2010, which can be found here: resources.conservation-us.org/osg-postprints/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2015/02/osg017-10.pdf
Or visit Carrlee’s blog: https://ellencarrlee.wordpress.com/?s=PEG