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Entries from September 2016

Carrie M. McLain Memorial Musuem: Journey of an Arctic Collection

By Amy Phillips-Chan, Director of the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum.  Originally Published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 23. 55-57

For almost 50 years the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum has perched a few yards from the icy coast of Norton Sound on historic Front Street in Nome, Alaska. In 1967 the Nome Museum, among other museums, including the Cordova Historical Museum, Pioneer Museum (Fairbanks), and Alaska State Museum (Juneau), sprung up across the state to celebrate the centennial purchase of Alaska from Russia. The centennial museums represented a concerted statewide effort to gather and preserve Alaska history and culture while at the same time they announced the importance of Alaska collections and researchers to the professional field.

In Nome, local historian Carrie M. McLain had embarked on a lifelong pursuit of collecting and sharing oral histories, photographs, and artifacts since her arrival on the fringe of the gold rush in 1905. McLain’s founding collection of ivory artwork and historical photographs set a precedent for donors with personal connections to Nome and the surrounding region looking to return their treasures and memories. The museum collection greatly expanded over the past five decades and now comprises 15,000 objects, 12,000 photographic prints and negatives, and over 100 linear feet of historical records.

Tools-lopp
Tools, ivory carvings, a pair of model boots, and a baleen basket from the Lopp Collection donated by great-grandson Stuart Dick in May 2015. CMMM, Acc. 2015.4.abøgarður, Faroe Islands.

The museum’s greatest collection strength is Alaska Native material culture from the late 19th century, followed by items related to gold mining, the ivory curio market, ancient ivory carvings, and dog sledding. The collection also comprises a fair number of business and household articles from early 1900s Nome as well as cultural artifacts and faunal remains from the Snake River Sandspit site. The overall collection affords unique insight into the socio-cultural and economic shifts occurring within Bering Strait communities at the turn of the 20th century.

The Lopp Collection of bone and ivory implements, stone tools, models, and ivory curios represents one of the museum’s distinct assemblages portraying transculturation. William Thomas “Tom” Loppand Ellen Louise Kittredge Loppserved as missionaries, teachers, and reindeer superintendents in Wales between 1892-1902. The Lopps participated in subsistence activities, took photographs, and printed a newsletter, The Eskimo Bulletin, which chronicled daily life within an Iñupiaq village. The growing presence of gold miners in the area and ensuing changes to the local economy are captured in Kathleen Lopp-Smith’s, Ice Window: Letters from a Bering Strait Village, 1892-1902 (2002).

By the time of the Lopp’s departure from Wales in 1902, the town of Nome had swelled to almost 20,000  people, Western goods were prevalent, and the ivory curio market was in full swing. The Shields Collection provides an example of positive cross-cultural relations with Iñupiaq families in transition and a variety of items produced for the tourist trade in Nome. From 1910-1918, Walter C. Shields served as Superintendent of Schools

Ivory-lopp
Ivory artwork from the Shields Collection donated by grandson Philip Shields in April 2015. The reindeer and figure stand on top of the tusk inscribed, “To Walter C. Shields, Superintendent 1916. Nome, Alaska. From, Wales Delegates.” CMMM, Acc. 2015.2

of the Northwest District of Alaska. Shields oversaw the establishment of new schools and advocated for the promulgation of reindeer herding as a means to increase Iñupiaq wealth and standing. During his treks to northern communities by reindeer sled, Shields took photographs, acquired objects, and framed his view on Iñupiaq history as a book of poems titled The Ancient Ground (1918).

In February 2015 I came onboard as Director of the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum as it stood on the cusp of its own significant transformation with construction of a new building, new exhibits, and its first dedicated collections storage area. Like many small museums, lapse in staff and lack of training over the years had resulted in a disorganized and poorly documented collection. The use of multiple numbering systems, a lack of accession records, and dearth of deed of gifts, presented an impressive challenge. Indeterminate portions of the collection were also stored in seven different locations across town adding another layer of organizational complexity.

In spring 2015 the museum undertook its first comprehensive inventory in fifty years. For those who have processed collections, one is intimately familiar with the meticulous task of searching for documentation, identifying, attributing, and cataloguing. Opening unmarked boxes and exploring collection hideaways also carries a heady sense of excitement and discovery. One remarkable object found folded in storage is a tanned and dyed sealskin wall hanging featuring alternating light and dark squares of intricate geometric appliqué typically found on 19th century Chukchi clothing from Eastern Siberia.

Wall hanging-lopp
Sealskin skin wall hanging featuring alternating light and dark squares of geometric designs. CMMM, Cat. 1979.1.52.

For our museum, the comprehensive inventory served a manifold purpose. First, the extensive processing activity helped us establish right of ownership while gaining critical insight into the scope and strengths of our collection. Knowledge about the range and dimensions of objects was also instrumental in planning the layout of cabinets and shelves in our new collections storage area. Next, after objects were catalogued and photographed they moved down the line to where they were wrapped and boxed for the move to the new museum. Finally, hands-on analyses of the collection afforded an opportunity to visualize new exhibit themes and identify key objects for storylines.

The museum collection will embark on its next journey during summer 2016 as it moves approximately one mile north to our new facility. Rehousing the collection in mobile storage will greatly increase the accessibility of the collection and expand its potential value for research, public programs, exhibits, and community projects. Following the move, the museum will be rolling out a “Community Historian” program as an integral part of exhibit development for the main gallery. The program invites community members with localized knowledge to partner with museum staff and draft exhibit content utilizing materials within the collection.

The Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum contains a rich assemblage of artifacts, photographs, and papers that reveal the vibrant history of Nome and the Bering Strait, from marine mammal hunting equipment and ivory artwork, to gold mining and the origins of long distance dog sled racing. Through many personal donations and accounts, the collection offer critical insight into the shared history of Western and Bering Strait Native peoples that continues to enrich the cultural fabric of Nome.


Arctic Ethnology Imaging Project

By Emily Cain and David Rosenthal.  Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 23. 40-41

Emily and Brittany
Emily Cain (left) and Brittany Hance (right) in the Department of Anthropology's Imaging Lab at the Museum Support Center.

The summer of 2015 saw the beginning of the Department of Anthropology’s Collections Management Unit’s Arctic Ethnology Imaging Project. The goal of this project is to photograph and make available online the entire NMNH Arctic Ethnology collection of over 20.000 objects.

Funding for the first project year (2015/2016) came from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) created in 2006 as an institution-wide pool to accomplish a wide variety of collections-related projects. The CCPF has funded 181 projects since its inception, totaling over $19 million awarded. Jake Homiak, former Anthropology Collections and Archives Program Director, and David Rosenthal, Anthropology Collections Manager, worked on the first grant proposal in summer 2014 together with the support of Igor Krupnik, Arctic Ethnology Curator.

Receiving the funding has allowed us to hire Brittany Hance and Emily Cainto see this project through. Brittany is a professional photographer and former intern with NMNH Photo Services. Emily, with a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from GWU (2015) has worked as a SIMA (Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology) intern and contractor. Brittany and Emily primarily work out of the Anthropology Collection Lab’s photo studio at the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland. It is equipped with an in-studio Mac Pro shooting computer, a Canon T6s camera with 24-70 EF lens, and Capture One 8.3 software, allowing for a streamlined process and high-quality product. Objects are tracked electronically, using a digital bar-code reader and color-coded system that records at exactly which step in the process each individual object is. Using these and other tools, they’ve modified the imaging workflow so that images are added to the online database almost as fast as they are taken while also minimizing human error.

Each object from the collection, ranging from Edward Nelson’s 1879 ti-sikh-puk dance mask from Western Alaska to Greenlandic souvenir tupilak figures of the 1960s, are carefully and thoroughly photographed, providing a highly detailed and readily accessible visual record to go along with existing catalog records.

Miniature walrus
Miniature walrus carving collected on St. Lawrence Island by Vaughn Rockney, 1943. E416900, Photograph by Brittany Hance

Challenges

The wide variety of materials within the Arctic collections presents certain logistical challenges; namely, the execution of an efficient system despite the breadth of shapes, sizes, and compositions of objects. In order to navigate this issue, the photo studio has been redesigned with fully modular and mobile shooting and staging areas, allowing for maximum flexibility to suit the needs of individual objects. Additionally, a series of specialized, supplemental photoshoots are planned for objects that fall outside of the capabilities of our main studio.

In collaboration with NMNH Photo Services, two weekend photo shoots have been completed to date in order to accommodate oversized objects such as large parkas and blankets. These objects’ size and, often, age require a much larger staging space and many careful hands. These photo shoots, conducted with the gantry system in the street at MSC, involve experienced volunteers to help facilitate the handling of very large objects, as well as the presence of two photographers for a combination of overall and detail shots with maximum efficiency. In order to manage extra-long objects such as spears and paddles, a new shooting process involving linear motion positioning is in the works for the coming summer.

Small wooden mask
Small wooden mask collected in western Alaska by Henry Collins in 1927. E340246, Photograph by Brittany Hance.

To date, we have photographed more than 2,800 objects and produced over 14,000 images. The majority of objects that belong to St. Lawrence Island Yupik and Nunivak Island Yup’ik/Čupik cultural groups have been photographed and inserted into the database, as well as the collections of Lucien M. Turner and Charles Francis Hall for Labrador and Arctic Canada/Greenland, respectively. The collections database is being updated with the outcomes of the project on a regular basis, with hundreds of new images being made available to both internal users and the general public each week.

We are currently waiting for the Smithsonian to announce the 2016 recipients of the CCPF awards and have high hopes to be funded for year 2 of this project. It will include the imaging of the Kotzebue Sound, Northwest Alaska, and of our smaller Siberia collections. Overall the project is expected to take four years to complete. In that time, Brittany and Emily plan to continue improving their process and to document it for future implementation across other in-house Anthropology digitization projects.