Included in the exhibition, “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Knowledge: The First People of Alaska” is a beautiful ceremonial gutskin parka from Saint Lawrence Island, which is presently part of the National Museum of the American Indian collection (123434.000). While examining the parka to make sure it could safely go on exhibition, it was noticed that several tears in the gut fabric were present and some of the crested auklet feathers used for decoration were missing. NMAI Conservator, Kelly McHugh, who was responsible for carrying out the conservation treatment on the Alaska Native items selected for loan, had very little experience working with gutskin.
As a membrane gut is very strong, but when dry it is can tear easily. Tears are often observed on parkas, and so are the repairs made to fix them. When in- use a common method of repair would be sewing a patch of gut with sinew around the torn area. A typical conservation repair in a museum would include gluing a patch, made out of Japanese tissue paper or Goldbeaters skin (calf intestine) around the torn area, with an archival adhesive. These glued repairs are not always successful and sometimes become detached, leaving reside of the glue on the gut fabric. Needing to talk with someone more familiar with the properties of gutskin in order to come up with the best way to repair the tears, the conservator was given the name of artist Elaine Kingeekuk. who comes from a family of skin sewers and uses gutskin in her own work.
Elaine Kingeekuk at work
It was clear from the conversations with Ms. Kingeekuk, she was better qualified to do the treatment due to her familiarity and experience working with gut fabric. She traveled to the NMAI’s Cultural Resource Center in November of 2007 (?) after speaking about undertaking the repair of the parka with elders in Saint Lawrence Island and gathering the appropriate materials. The repairs were done in the traditional manner with gutskin patches sewn with sinew. Decorative auklet crests were reattached where necessary to complete the decorative design pattern. The treatment was documented through a written report and digital images. This case study shows that the expertise needed to responsibly care for an item in a museum collection may reside outside of the museum. The partnership between the conservator and the artist in discussing, executing and documenting the treatment resulted in the best care for this important garment.
This project was funded by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust with additional support from the Naitonal Museum of the American Indian.