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News Student Blog: Working with indigenous communities

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ARTC undergraduate student Annabelle Fichtner  examines the twist of a hand-made cordage knot. The fiber was identified by former NMAI Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation, Nora Frankel, as dogbane. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (033805.000). Image courtesy of Laura Mina.

During my preprogram conservation experience I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with Native American cultural heritage in a variety of contexts, including at the Arizona State Museum where I interned alongside Native American conservation students. There is a continued need within the field of art conservation to engage indigenous communities with the preservation of their material culture. Fortunately, this topic will be addressed at the Untold Stories event at the 2019 AIC Meeting.

With this need in mind, I wanted my undergraduate senior thesis to involve collaboration with an indigenous community, specifically the Lenape Tribe of Delaware. With their guidance, I proposed my current thesis research: Reconstructing Mid-Atlantic Native American Net-Making Technology. The project was inspired by the work of the last known Lenape net-maker, Clem Carney (d. 1957). Carney’s work was collected by UPenn Anthropologist C.A. Weslager in the 1940s and eventually donated to the Heye Collection (now the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, at the Smithsonian Institution).

Members of the delegation, including Chief Dennis Coker and Melody Cline, and ARTC undergraduate student Annabelle Fichtner examine a shuttle used by Clem Carney. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (246724.000). Image courtesy of Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media.

My research, which is under the direction of Jill Neitzel, Professor in Anthropology at UD, and Laura Mina, Associate Textile Conservator at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, has three main components:

  1. Study the construction, material, and cultural context of Mid-Atlantic Native American fishing nets.
  2. Share my findings with the tribal community through a series of outreach events and net-tying workshops.
  3. Create tools and resources to facilitate future research on this previously untouched subject.

Due to the natural fibers used in their construction and the humid environment in which they were used, very few Mid-Atlantic fishing nets can be found within museum collections. However, I have examined those at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and at the American Museum of Natural History. When examining the nets, I recorded their construction, details of their cordage, and evidence of use or cultural context, such as the presence of historic repairs or preservatives. The best way to gather information on this cultural context however has of course been from the tribal members themselves.

Laura Mina and Annabelle Fichtner examine a fish fyke. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (032490.000). Image courtesy of Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media.

My research visit to the National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland was coordinated along with a Lenape Delegation visit. During the visit, Clem Carney's descendant, Melody Cline, admired the shuttles her ancestor once used to tie nets. Chief Dennis Coker discussed how the nets may have once been used to catch fish that are no longer plentiful within the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. Their conversations made it clear that not only the materiality of the nets, but also their greater cultural context, is worthy of preservation. The latter would never have been fully obtained without the collaboration of the tribal community.

The main goal of my research is to engage the community in the research and preservation of their material culture. This is a goal I am happy to see become more common within the field of art conservation, and I am grateful to the Lenape Tribe of Delaware for entrusting me with such an exciting responsibility!

— Annabelle Fichtner, UD Class of 2019


Annabelle's research was featured in a Delaware Public Media article here. To learn more about Annabelle's project, you are invited to attend an outreach event at 10am on December 3, 2018 at the Newark Natural Food Coop Education Room.

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In this blog post, ARTC undergraduate student Annabelle Fichtner shares her preprogram experience working with indigenous cultural heritage and communities, helping to preserve the traditional net-making skills of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware.

In this blog post, ARTC undergraduate student Annabelle Fichtner shares her preprogram experience working with indigenous cultural heritage and communities, helping to preserve the traditional net-making skills of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware.

11/3/2018
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu