Inside the Peabody Museum: December 2011

Staff Team up with Alaska's Alutiiq Museum to Conserve Rare Kayaks

skyping with the alutiiq museum

A video conference call allows conservators to show colleagues in Alaska close-ups of a rare warrior kayak. Clockwise from top left: Conservators Scott Fulton and Judy Jungels, Associate Curator Patricia Capone, and Head Conservator T. Rose Holdcraft holding the webcam.

If you're in the Hall of the North American Indian on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, you just might encounter an unusual collaboration. Peabody Museum staff have been video conferencing with staffers at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska and others to study and conserve two rare kayaks in the gallery.

The kayaks--a rare Alutiiq warrior kayak and a Yup'ik kayak--are among the more than 100 Native Alaskan objects to be documented and conserved in the gallery, part of a Save America's Treasures grant.

"So far, we've had visitors from the local area, Italy, France, and Germany," says T. Rose Holdcraft, head of the Peabody's Conservation Lab. "We also had several boy scouts with their counselors, students from Harvard, including one who grew up learning one of the Yup'ik languages during the time he lived with his parents in and around Bethel, Alaska."

Visitors ask the conservators all kinds of questions, such as "What are those?", "How old are they?" (mid-19th century) and "What are they made of?" (sea mammal skins, animal sinew, wood, and plant fiber).

Everyone is encouraged to talk with the conservators to find out more about the kayaks, how they're made, and learn about Native Alaskan watercrafts and seafaring.

Conservators work in the gallery and are available to answer questions on Mondays from 9 to 5 PM, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 2 to 5 PM.

Last month, when not chatting with visitors, Peabody staff began documenting the condition of the kayaks with multiple photographs and reports, and sharing results with the Native Alaska team. They video-conferenced with Sven Haakanson (Director, Alutiiq Museum) and Susie Malutin (a skin sewer) at the Alutiiq Museum about understanding the preservation challenges of the Alutiiq warrior kayak.

"We rolled a camera on a cart alongside the [warrior] kayak so that Sven and Susie could see the locations of tears and some of the stitching techniques," explained Sandra Dong, project coordinator for the grant. "Sven told us it's made of several sea lion skins, likely female."

The team wants to understand all of the construction elements of the kayak. "It's sewn with animal sinew, but there is also some hair in the seams,” notes Holdcraft." "It's too long for seal," offers conservator Scott Fulton. Haakanson told the team bear hair was in use at the time the kayak was made. " Museum staff determine the options for identifying the hair and sinew in consultation with the Alutiiq community. It's just one of many mysteries to solve as the collaboration continues.

Save America’s Treasures is a federal grant program made in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Save America’s Treasures’ private partner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

New ARTZ Group Tours

ARTZ at the Peabody Museum

ARTZ participants chat with ARTZ Massachusetts Program Coordinator Peggy Cahill in the Peabody Museum's Wiyohpiyata exhibition.

Comfortably seated before a large photograph of Sitting Bull in the Peabody's Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West exhibition, the group's discussion is lively.

"Is this the kind of person you'd like to meet?" asks a tour leader.

"Yes! I want to hear his story. He looks like he went through a lot of things."

"Weathered, he looks weathered."

"That's a good word," encourages leader Sally Sutton. She's an Endicott College senior, interning full-time with ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer's. 

This fall, the Peabody Museum joined a group of Massachusetts-area museums that host ARTZ group tours for people living with Alzheimer's and related dementia.  Tours are led by ARTZ-trained guides such as Sutton, and are carefully developed to reflect the neuroscience of Alzheimer's. The program was originally created with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and its success has spread to London, Paris, Madrid, and Cambridge, including the Harvard Museum of Natural History. 

"It's amazing. You can see the joy and fascination," says Peggy Cahill, Massachusetts Program Coordinator. "The ARTZ model is looking together and learning together, with a focus on having fun. The idea that [ARTZ visitors] need to be treated differently is erroneous. We bring them into the community with an opportunity to express themselves."

ARTZ staffers visit the museums before the group tours, planning the route and carefully choosing objects most likely to provoke interest. Cahill notes that human faces and facial expressions are typically fascinating. "And there’s always room for curiosity and the spontaneous moments when people get interested in something else. We try to follow that lead."

In the gallery, Sutton asks if Sitting Bull is an important person. "Yes," comes the emphatic answer. "He has to be, because he's at Harvard—right in front."

"Does he remind you of anyone?"

"He's wise, he's serious, he looks like he has a lot of knowledge."

"He grew up, maybe in a war."

"Is he very confident?" wonders Sutton.

"Yes, yes. I think he's a leader."

"Isn't it amazing how a face can tell us a lot of things."

These museum visits are considered art experiences. ARTZ's website explains art experiences can significantly reduce dementia symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, agitation and apathy, while helping to maintain cognitive functioning, using areas of the brain that have often gone unused for years.

"It's almost like he's listening to us."

"What do you think he would say?" asks Sutton.

"We can solve this. Whatever we're talking about, we can work it out together."

To sign up for ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer's, see upcoming dates, or for more information, please go to

Save the Dates: More Trash Talks and the Exploring the Maya Empire

photo by chris jordan

"Midway: Message from the Gyre, 2009." Photo by Chris Jordan. Jordan writes, "...the detritus of our mass consumption surfaces in an astonishing place: inside the stomachs of thousands of dead baby albatrosses. The nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean."

January ushers in the second half of the Trash Talk: Anthropology of Waste lecture series, followed by a new talk on the Maya.

First is "Stuff by the Yard: Campus Materials Management" with Harvard's recycling and waste services manager Rob Gogan on January 26. He finds for innovative ways to reduce waste on campus. The next Trash Talk is on February 9: "Terrible and Charismatic Waste: A Close Reading of Ocean Plastics." Max Liboiron reveals the impact of plastic pollution on the ocean and by extension, on people.

On February 23, the Gordon R. Willey Lecture "Maya and the Idea of Empire: A View from the Field" will be presented by David Freidel, Professor of Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.


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Did you miss lectures in the Trash Talk: Anthropology of Waste series? You can listen to them here or download them to your mobile device through iTunes U. Look for Harvard's Peabody Museum lectures. More will be posted throughout the year.

December 17

12-4 pm


Family Program

Awesome Arctic Artifacts

Free with Peabody Museum admission.