The aftermath of mends: Removing historic fabric tape from Tlingit basketry

Caitlin Mahony and Teri Rofkar

Abstract

Disasters strike items of cultural heritage in many forms. Though natural and human disasters cause large-scale destruction in a matter of minutes, the slow deterioration of our collections by misguided interventions can also bring damage of notable impact to institutions. A campaign of undocumented museum mending in the early 20th century left in its wake widespread instability for 130 Tlingit spruce root baskets in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. The repairs are oversized strips of linen fabric tape attached with excessive amounts of hide glue or cellulose nitrate, covered with carelessly applied and chromatically unmatched lead-based paints. These well-intended but unsuitable interventions took the existing damage of minor rips, tears, and losses and escalated it in magnitude to include warped structures, areas of embrittlement, and visually distracting repair material that obscure the structure and inhibit exhibition and scholarship. To the Tlingit community, these baskets are surviving examples of an endangered art form. Furthermore, it is not only the survival of the baskets but access to them that is integral.

Guided by modern conservation and the expertise of Dr. Teri Rofkar, a Tlingit master weaver, we have begun a two-year project to reconcile the damage. We are investigating the optimal removal method of these mends and designing an appropriate treatment for the baskets which will reinstate their integrity, function, and potential for use for the Tlingit community and the museum.