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The Many, Many Layers of a Totem Pole Restoration Project

Four red cedar Tsimshian house posts have stood in the hall since the windows opened up onto fields and rail tracks, since the gallery was illuminated by gaslight, since the museum was heated by coal. The painted, carved stacks of creatures—eagles, bears, humans, and more, with faces much wider than visitors’—arrived at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the waning days of the 19th century, when guests swanned about wearing corsets or double-breasted tailcoats.

The world has changed before the totem poles’ painted eyes, and the years have taken their toll. The conservation crew now tasked with freshening up these 15-foot-tall fixtures of the Northwest Coast Hall has had a big job, says conservator Samantha Alderson: “a hundred-plus years of heavy soiling and dust.”

The hall, which encompasses the arts of Native communities across the northwestern edge of the United States and Canada, was never supposed to look as it does now. Originally, light streamed in through large, arched windows, bathing the totem poles in sunshine. But slowly the museum was built up around this gallery, and it was boxed in by other rooms; the institution is now a complex of 25 interconnected buildings jammed together. In the Northwest Coast Hall, the light disappeared. The place had grown so dark, curator Peter Whiteley recalls, that people used to jest that visitors needed to “bring your own flashlight to enjoy the collection.”

It was a joke, but just barely. The room was dim, and over the years the posts darkened, too. Because they sat exposed, instead of behind glass, staff members had tried to clean them over the decades using whatever they thought they ought to. “Well-meaning, all of it, I’m sure,” Alderson says, “but the approaches have changed.” Damage collected in layers—dirt sandwiched between swaths of uneven cleaning and resin that turned the wood dark brown and gummy, and concealed, dulled, or muddled the bright original colors.

 . . .

The museum is now in the process of a major overhaul of the section, which will close to the public this winter and reopen in 2020.

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Tags: #anthropology, #history, #indigenouspeoples, #museums, #restoration
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