This interview is part of the Collection Care Network's (CCN) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This edition of the blog is an interview with Nicole Peters, owner of Peters Art Conservation Services LLC based out of Skagway, AK and Frederick, MD.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a traveling conservator in Alaska.
I was first introduced to Alaska in 2012 when I took on an internship conserving taxidermy and historical objects for the National Park Service under the mentorship of Scott Carrlee. That first experience in Alaska sort of solidified my infatuation with the state, the people, and the culture. Over the next few years I returned to Alaska several times to take on more internship and technician work. After graduating from the Buffalo State College Art Conservation Program in 2016, I took a bit of a leap into the unknown with my partner (whom I met in Alaska) and gathered up my belongings and moved up to Southeast Alaska. Luckily, I had a few contracts already lined out upon arrival, making the transition both financially and logistically doable. I am eternally grateful to conservator Monica Shah, Deputy Director of Conservation & Collections at the Anchorage Museum, for that first contract! After finishing up work at the Anchorage Museum, I spent the next 4 years traveling around the state performing conservation and preservation work for museums, historical societies, cultural and indigenous community centers, the National Park Service, and for private clients in a mobile conservation lab fashion.
What tools or resources do you use most frequently on collection care projects?
My core tool kit for onsite work consists of my tool wrap (tweezers, microspatulas, scalpels, etc.); goat-hair mop brushes; various dry-surface cleaning media, and my trusty 3M “tacklebox” HEPA vacuum and microattachments. I keep a pre-organized and fully stockpiled lidded and lockable container with an array of materials, tools, and dry resins (and all SDS literature) with an up-to-date inventory list placed inside the container. The container contains everything from medical syringes to Japanese tissue paper to pigments and paints. I learned rather quickly that it was better to bring the container to every project, regardless of whether or not I thought I might need something. Expect the unexpected, especially in Alaska!
A considerable portion of the work I completed in Alaska involved a collection care/ preventative conservation component in addition to conservation treatment. I always brought those mini thermometer/hygrometers on site, in addition to humidity cards and a pH pen. Once I was able to afford it, I invested in purchasing an Elsec environmental monitor- which I love! I use it more often than I thought I would. I also find it incredibly helpful to bring a bunch of those archival material sample books to the site so that collection stewards can better examine and evaluate the various products available.
Please tell us about some successful collection care projects that you’ve worked on.
One of the most unique collection care projects I worked on in Alaska was performing a collection condition survey and implementing a preventative conservation plan for objects at the National Park Service’s Dick Proenneke historic cabin located in the Alaskan bush; a site only accessible via float plane. I worked with the park’s curator Katie Myers to develop a custom preventative care and cyclical maintenance plan that was be feasible and realistic, given the cabin’s remote locale and limited personnel. We developed a training program and guide book for the backcountry rangers so they can perform inventory counts, condition assessments, recognize pest issues/damage, and perform basic surface cleaning of cabin objects.
Another successful project I worked on was a preventative conservation workshop held at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor Center in Fairbanks, AK. Participants from the Morris Thompson Center; Tanana Chiefs Conference; the NPS; local historical societies and museums; and community members worked collaboratively during the 3-day workshop learning how to properly house and store objects and heirlooms from their own collections, how to identify and mitigate collection threats, and learned about safe surface cleaning and dusting techniques. We were also able to perform XRF testing on some natural history and cultural items that folks brought in with a pXRF graciously lent to the project courtesy of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. It also provided the opportunity to discuss some of these hazardous materials more in depth and the importance of proper handling procedures and PPE.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in meeting collection care needs?
In Alaska, one of the biggest challenges in my opinion is the cost of purchasing and shipping archival materials. Shipping items like archival blue board and large sections of Ethanfoam plank up to Alaska can be prohibitively expensive. Luckily, there are Alaska-specific grants available that can help defray exorbitant costs associated with shipping to remote locales. Even so, it can still be quite tricky: both financially and logistically.
What role does collaboration with local indigenous communities play in cultural or indigenous-focused collection care projects?
Collaboration with indigenous communities during cultural preservation efforts and collection care projects should be built into the project workflow from the beginning. This helps to establish an equitable platform where everybody can share their perspectives and discuss their individual goals for cultural preservation. Open communication helps to facilitate the development of a project that meets the needs of the Native community while also fulfilling the institution’s mandate to collect, preserve, and make publicly available these material objects. By working collaboratively and combining conservation approaches and ethics with Native communities’ preferences or traditional methods, a more holistic and appropriate project can be accomplished.
Are there any particular skills that you feel are important in collaborating with indigenous communities?
Yes, there are many! Transparency, open communication, the ability to really listen, respect, graciousness, kindness, and basic good manners- just to name a few.
What can the field do to further support collection care for indigenous communities and in remote areas?
I think this past year has really demonstrated just how much can be accomplished electronically in terms of communication, education, and working remotely. Online programming and training courses can be a great resource for communities in remote locations. Just last summer (2020) I conducted a live workshop on archival materials and constructing storage mounts and housing on Zoom. The live webinar was part of a larger educational series developed by Museums Alaska’s Programs Committee in partnership with the Western Museum’s Association, and was funded by the Alaska State Museum’s Grant-in-Aid program. The four-part series consisted of: Basic Digital Photography for Objects; Inventories and Checklists; Intro to 3D Object Storage Mounts; and Caring for Outdoor Wood Art. The hands-on “live” demonstrations and discussions were conducted by museum professionals in institutions around the state, and provided a really great breadth of topics and collection information. I’d really like to see more programming opportunities like this being offered to communities in remote locales.
If you enjoyed this post, check out CCN's other most recent blog post, an interview with Nicole Grabow.