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 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 imprecisely 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 obscures the structure and inhibits exhibition and scholarship.

Guided by modern conservation and the expertise of Dr. Teri Rofkar, a Tlingit master weaver, we undertook a two-year project to reconcile the damage. We investigated the optimal method of removing these mends and designed an appropriate treatment for the baskets that reinstates their integrity, function, and potential for use for the Tlingit community and the museum.

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