This interview is part of the Preventive Care Network's (formerly the Collection Care Network) 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 PCN Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Amanda Lancaster, Curator of Collections at the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, AK. This interview coincides with the CCN column in the November 2022 edition of AIC News, which is all about culturally responsive care of Indigenous collections in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about collections care at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska. Could you start by introducing yourself and your background, and tell us a little bit about your museum and its collections?
My name is Amanda Lancaster, and I am the Curator of Collections at the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, AK. I previously served as the Collections & Facilities Manager, and I have been at the museum for 5 ½ years. I moved to Kodiak from Houston, TX, specifically for the job. I attended Texas Tech University for my Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees. I received my degrees in History but obtained a graduate certificate in museum studies while in graduate school. I previously worked at the Czech Center Museum in Houston.
The Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository is a non-profit museum and cultural center dedicated to preserving and sharing the heritage and living culture of the Alutiiq / Sugpiaq. The Alutiiq are an Alaska Native peoples. They have inhabited the coastal environments of south-central Alaska for over 7,500 years. Their traditional homelands include Prince William Sound, the outer Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska Peninsula. Here people lived in coastal communities and hunted sea mammals from skin-covered boats.
The Alutiiq Museum cares for more than 250,000 items reflecting the culture and history of the Alutiiq people. Our holdings include archaeological materials, photographs, ethnographic objects, archival items, film & audio recordings, and natural history specimens. The museum also holds the Koniag Cultural Library, which contains over 3,700 books, photographs, recordings, and documents, materials that reflect the Alutiiq world and supports the museum's work.
How did you become interested in caring for collections?
I became interested in collections care during graduate school, while working as a student assistant at my university’s museum. That work, as well as graduate studies in collections management, gave me the technical skills necessary for collections care. As the Curator of Collections for the Alutiiq Museum, my work is directed by the Alutiiq community via our Board of Directors, which is made up of representatives from the Native community. I care for the cultural materials at the Alutiiq Museum using the technical skills I learned in graduate school, and guidance from cultural experts in the Alutiiq community.
Your museum’s mission emphasizes the celebration of “living culture.” Could you explain how the focus on living culture is realized or prioritized in your collections care decision-making?
Aside from our Permanent Collection, we have a Teaching Collection, which consists of materials that are specifically available for hands-on use by the community. These include replica items like a war club and shield and pieces of regalia as well as ancestral artifacts without provenance, e.g., from avocational collections. Artifacts are added to our Teaching Collection courtesy of an island-wide agreement among the major landowners of Kodiak. This agreement allows the Alutiiq Museum to accept artifacts from our region that have no provenience, in order to provide respectful treatment and use in educational outreach. Of note, oil lamps in the teaching collection are frequently checked out for use in Alutiiq ceremonies and gatherings.
In what ways do members of the Alutiiq community engage with your collections, or contribute to their care?
Alutiiq community members frequently visit the museum for artistic inspiration and information (e.g., to consult ancestral designs, construction techniques, material choices), to visit collections from their home villages, listen to Alutiiq language recordings, or view historic photographs. When we post photos from our collection on our social media, members of the community frequently provide more context in the comments. We often go from having a photo with no descriptive metadata to one with a more comprehensive picture of its content or origin.
People also enjoy seeing ancestral artifacts in displays. The museum highlights Alutiiq history in exhibits that showcase Alutiiq technology and build pride and awareness of the Alutiiq world.
While all museums aim to uphold high standards for collections care, they usually center on physical agents of deterioration like incorrect humidity, light, or pests. How does that align with your museum’s approach to caring for Alutiiq objects? Are there additional factors that need to be considered in caring for Alutiiq belongings?
Risk management always exists on a continuum. In our museum, culturally appropriate care, as well as accessibility to the collection are weighed more heavily than it might be in other museums. To go back to the oil lamp example--in many museums, pouring oil into an archaeological artifact, lighting it with a flame, and using it might be frowned upon. But as we are a living cultural center, the preservation of the oil lamp exists hand in hand with its accessibility. Our museum does not hold curios, but material cultural that sustains a living culture.
That’s not to say that collections care is not a top priority. As the second AAM-accredited tribal museum in the United States, we work hard to maintain high standards while also providing access. In addition, caring for cultural items is an Alutiiq value. In the Alutiiq worldview, showing respect for materials and objects ensures future prosperity. Caring for what you have, keeping it in good repair, and sharing it are all in keeping with both Alutiiq values and museum standards.
Many museums are beginning to interrogate the descriptive language used to identify and interpret objects in their catalogs - mainly because conventional museum nomenclatures are not always meaningful to descendant communities. Could you talk about the role of language in your collections care practices?
Several years ago, when transitioning to a new collections management database, we ensured that a field for the Alutiiq name of objects was included. In addition, we found that common controlled vocabularies did not provide the range of options for Alutiiq-specific tool types. So we also added a custom controlled vocabulary list to provide a more descriptive and accurate collections management database of Alutiiq tools.
What are some of your biggest concerns or challenges in your collections right now?
Like many museums, we struggle with adequate storage space and resources, and being in Alaska provides the added difficulty of getting materials here quickly, if at all. In addition, the Alutiiq Museum cares for a range of materials: archaeological, ethnographic, textiles, paper, digital media, contemporary artwork, metal, etc., and it can be difficult to meet the needs of such a wide variety of materials in the same small space.
What are you most excited about or proud of regarding your museum’s care of Alutiiq belongings?
I am particularly proud of our Spiritual Care of Artifacts Guidelines. This document, developed by the museum with guidance by community members, assists the museum board, staff, volunteers, and patrons in interacting respectfully with cultural materials, especially sacred items. The guidelines provide direction on identifying and caring for sacred items, how and when to provide access, and how to manage conflicts. The spiritual care guidelines lead my work but are broad enough to grow and change easily as our knowledge grows. I frequently get requests for a copy of the document, and it makes me proud that something we developed has helped other museums do this important work.
For those AIC members (conservators and collections care specialists) who would like to take a more culturally informed approach to the care of Indigenous objects, what advice would you give them? Where should they start?
Learn to let go. I have worked at the Alutiiq Museum for over 5 years, and it took a while to let go of rigid ideas of “proper” collections management and appreciate that when working in a museum dedicated to living culture, frequently the accessibility is as important as preservation.
Secondly, talk to tribal representatives about how they want to see their cultural materials cared for, and when possible, compensate them for their time and knowledge. No one would ask a painting conservator to perform their work for free. Tribal representatives providing a consultation are cultural experts and their expertise should be compensated.
If you enjoyed this post, check out PCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Kimberly Kenyon on Transition and Change at the Queen Anne's Revenge.