Art preservation is an art unto itself

Pieces in Tamastslikt Cultural Institute's collection receive tender loving care to ensure history survives.

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As part of Tamastslikt Cultural Institute's preservation efforts, intern Avery McKay carefully wipes away a film of dust from a bowl excavated from the original site of Fort Walla Walla.

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Preservation of historical artifacts takes a steady hand and careful planning. Among piles of tribal blankets, Avery McKay, an intern at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Mission, Ore., plans her approach to a bowl that harkens back to the days of the first white settlers in the area.

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Randall Melton, collections curator at the museum, explains how artifacts are stored away from danger of pests and light that can destroy clothing and other items created from natural material.s

MISSION, Ore. - At age 35, Randall Melton understands his past is also his future.

Melton is the collections curator of Tamstslikt Cultural Institute, situated where the high desert of Eastern Oregon becomes one with the Blue Mountains on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

And it's where every artifact has a job to do - teaching the people of today respect for yesterday.

The museum is dedicated to the culture of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes of American Indians.

Exhibits here range from the smallest arrowheads to a full-sized tule reed lodge. A tour takes visitors from native culture of 10,000 years ago to today's world.

Tamstslikt, meaning "interpreter" in the language of all three tribes, does that in 14,000 square-feet of space. That includes a temporary exhibition hall that usually features art, craft work and folklore related to the tribes.

Not on this day, however. For the past several weeks, museum staff have been carrying out the annual winter time process of cleaning exhibits and artifacts, turning this space into a lofty work room.

Such conservation work began in earnest three years ago. Prior to 2007, the institute lacked a complete inventory of its collection. As well, many photos used for identifying objects were low quality, and files were incomplete and scattered.

Now, however, work that might be done in another museum away from the public eye is laid out for visitors to see. There is a station where folks can help clean, photograph and catalog stone tools as part of an interactive conservation lab.

Melton also created and mounted explanatory panels as part of the "Caring for the Past" exhibit. Those explain the significance of conservation efforts, he said.

It's here that Avery McKay is lightly dusting a piece from the collection of items excavated from the original Fort Walla Walla location before McNary Dam was built. The exhibit, which includes cracked and chipped dinnerware, is on loan from the National Park Service.

The exhibit is representative of the time when most area native Americans would have first come in contact with whites, Melton said.

With a fine cloth, the intern carefully wiped a large bowl's surface with measured strokes and gloved hands, keeping her eyes on the job. The vessel, painted in intricate detail in blue and white, is in remarkably good shape for being nearly two centuries old.

And the cleaning is intended to keep it that way, Melton said, although some things can't take even the lightest touch. "Sometimes we have to leave them alone. We may do more damage by cleaning it."

The housekeeping task is a painstaking activity that is of the utmost importance, he explained. "This is tribe care-taking, one tribe doing this, but on a national scale." The museum does no restoration, instead keeping items that have been used and handed down for generations in the state in which they arrived.

Take, for example, the woven corn husk bag on display at the conservation exhibit. It was used for collecting food for years. At some point, carpet beetles munched on the bag's colorful embroidery, leaving behind what is known in museum-speak as "false embroidery." Thus the bag has lost most of its vibrancy and texture and is now decorated with vague shapes and muted hues.

The cultural institute's job is to prevent new damage.

America has a vast storehouse of treasures important to the history of the nation. Those items are kept everywhere from the Smithsonian to county historical societies to tribal museums, Melton said. "Or in someone's shed."

It is vital those treasures be preserved, experts agree. Many museums, however, have conservation standards that are determined by finances and practiced by staff who haven't had appropriate training, Melton said.

There is a national initiative by the Institute of Museum and Library Services to standardize the approach to stabilizing museum collections. The effort was launched in 2007 as a call to action to preserve America's physical history. Part of that project includes funding conservation at places like Tamstslikt.

Which is doing a good job with that grant money, noted conservator Tom Fuller with Northwest Objects Conservation.

Fuller, who is an independent consultant and conservator of objects, has helped Melton assess Tamstslikt's "fabulous" collection and design a framework for keeping it safe from elements of destruction.

Preserving art is, well, an art, he said. "It comes down to knowing materials," both the artifact and what is applied to those.

Most museums do not have full-time conservators, especially on the West Coast, Fuller pointed out - "The arts are not well funded. We're suffering."

At Tamstslikt, conservation is part of the overall budget, Melton said. And inventory is much more than whatever items are in the exhibit rotation at any one time. The museum's main vault - big enough to house a few semi trucks - holds shelf after rolling shelf of exquisite handiwork, most dating back generations.

The pieces are stored in custom open boxes and on acid-free mats that allow the object to be examined without contact with human hands. Beaded apparel, still vibrantly beaded, is supported from inside by foam tubes meant to relieve stress on folds and seams.

Everything is kept away from light and unnecessary exposure as much as possible.

It's more than just preserving things, the curator emphasized. "As a tribal museum, we say if someone has used something and they made it, the idea is they are part of the object. We care for them the way we would the person."

Staff members are always on the lookout for fluctuations in climate control and the pests that feed on the wool, wooden beads, reed baskets and leather.

Great effort is put into cataloging and explanation of the pieces, Melton said. "Even if it's not important to us now, in 50 years someone who has this job will want to know. We're never going to get all the history off those items, but if we can keep them safe for another generation to get more information."

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