This is the third in a new series of articles about conservation written by professional conservators. We hope you will find them interesting, and welcome any comments, questions or suggestions you may have for us.
A Treatment Song for the Tongass Island Raven
The storage conditions for the collection at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska were in need of conservation upgrading. For many years, conservators had recommended improvements to structural support systems for the important collection of totem poles. Environmental conditions were also on the list for improvement. The situation in the storage room was particularly problematic for one very important totem, the Tongass Island Raven. The conservation steps taken to stabilize the Raven and provide a safe, carefully designed support are an example of local application of international conservation standards. But the local application of these standards included a unique approach to native involvement in the project.
Tongass Island Raven before conservation treatment.
In Alaska, one of the principal leaders in the programmes to teach native culture to young native people and others interested in preserving native culture and traditions is Esther Shea. As an elder of the Tongass Tribe and an elder of her own family she also held rights and responsibility for the traditional ownership of the Tongass Island Raven. It was with Esther Shea that the final approval for the treatment project remained. The proposal was outlined to her and a meeting was planned to take place on an April evening. Esther came to the Totem Heritage Center with members of her family and in the presence of them and the staff of the Ketchikan Museum Department and myself, a small but meaningful ceremony took place. In the hushed totem storage room, beside the Raven, on that rainy April evening, the dark night sky seemed to surround the still room and separate the Raven and the people who were present from the rest of the world. After introductions, Esther indicated she would sing a song. Alone in her native Tlingit language, she sang a blessing for the treatment and an explanation of the purpose of intervention to the Raven. A spine tingling hush lay in the air of the room after the song, and it felt clear that the spirits of ancestral voices were part of the song.
The meaning of the song in the Tlingit language was explained by Esther after she had finished. She said that she had asked the Raven to understand that the treatment was meant to help the people who were alive now to be more closely linked with their ancestors from the past. She asked the Raven to understand that no harm was meant and that the effort to preserve the wood and to keep the materials stabilized was so the Raven could continue to remind the native people of their culture, their symbols and the past.
The stages of conservation treatment of the Tongass Island Raven proceeded as a consolidation project for badly deteriorated wood. Surface cleaning preceded consolidation with Butvar B-90, dissolved in ethanol. Reinforcements were added to stabilize integral sections. A structural support was custom fitted to the shape of the Raven in critical locations and the object was moved onto a special new plinth.
My hope at this stage, is that Esther Shea's song for the treatment of the Raven will be heard by the native people she hopes will benefit from its preservation, and that they will act to keep the Tongass Island Raven in a safe state.