In the past few years, museum professionals have adapted biotechnology techniques to enhance our understanding of cultural objects. The identification of animal materials from Native American cultural objects to the family or species level contributes significantly to the documentation of museum collections and academic research, as well as to self-determined, indigenous, and descendent community study. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University has been working with a wide range of Native American groups who often ask questions about component materials of objects under stewardship at the Peabody Museum. In 2012 the Peabody Museum implemented a project funded in part by the federal Save America’s Treasures (SAT) program administered by the U. S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project involved collaborative study and conservation of Alaska Native kayaks and kayak-related clothing and tool collections among the Peabody Museum, the Alutiiq Museum, and Alutiiq experts from Kodiak Island. To address questions related to materials and construction technology, the Peabody Museum began working with a conservation scientist (Daniel P. Kirby) to identify the sources of mammals used in the Alaska Native objects.
In the Spring of 2013, an undergraduate student enrolled in a Harvard course entitled ‘Museum Anthropology: Thinking with Objects” was studying and researching a pair of late 19th century Alaskan Native child’s sealskin boots. In addition to researching literature and museum documentation about the object housed at the Peabody Museum, the student consulted a visiting Alutiiq traditional skin sewer from Kodiak, Alaska with some of her questions about the boots. Together, the research and their discussions yielded suggestions about the construction techniques and generated questions about further identifying marine mammal materials.
Through this continuing study of the boots, we have been able to explore some of the open questions and provide additional information about the sealskin and other fur components. The PMF technique was selected due to the very small sample size and its accuracy over other methods in use to characterize such materials.
For more information about the NCPTT-funded project, see the website: http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/pmfcm/