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The experiences we have as emerging conservation professionals pre-program are incredibly important in shaping us as graduate students, future conservators, and individuals. They can also be a time of uncertainty for many, as the pre-program experiences vary wildly from person to person. My first position post-graduation was actually not in a conservation lab. For the 2018-2019 year, I was a member of AmeriCorps, specifically in the Ohio History Service Corps as a Local History Member. For the duration of my service, I was hosted by the Oberlin Heritage Center, a small historical society and museum in Oberlin, OH. While half my service was for the Oberlin Heritage Center directly, the other half of my service was spent doing outreach to other small historical societies and museums in the Cleveland area. Although I was not in the lab, I was privileged to gain experience in other areas of museum stewardship, such as education in the form of tours and summer break camps for kids, social media outreach, drafting and revising collections management policies, and developing engaging programming for a varied audience.
One of my biggest projects was researching the history of women's suffrage in Oberlin so that I could put on a program that coincided with the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. This culminated in two public programs - one focusing on the Black Suffragists in Oberlin for the Oberlin African American History and Genealogy Group's monthly meeting and another that included these women and others that advocated for women's suffrage on both a local and national level. My research required me to dig deep into primary sources including newspapers (both online and on microfilm), old voting records, and oral histories to put together a cohesive narrative. Overall, my experience in the Ohio History Service Corps allowed me to become a more well-rounded individual with respect to the museum field and I gained many transferable skills that I am able to apply in the conservation. I also gained an immense appreciation for the work done by small museums, many of whom are mostly or all volunteer-run.
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Left: Riley realigning the hide thong on the strap using tweezers and securing them with neutral brown silk thread. (Image: Kat Martin) Right: After treatment, the hide thong is realigned and secured with silk thread. (Image: R. Thomas)
Following AmeriCorps, I re-entered the conservation lab through an internship at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. During my six months there, I assisted primarily with the treatment of objects that were chosen to be a part of the upcoming exhibition, Native New York. One of my favorite treatments was on a c. 1770 Lenape hide pouch. This buckskin pouch was collected by an unknown man in the 1770s who sent it to his family in Scotland. It was passed down through this family before being acquired by Lieutenant George T. Emmons of the U.S. Navy. It eventually was sold to the Museum of the American Indian (now the NMAI) in 1925. From 1954 to 1994 it was on display at the MAI Heye Foundation in New York, NY. It was an honor to work on a piece that was both artistically beautiful and that had an engaging history with the Museum. The pouch reflected its age and the inherent vice of the materials from which it was made: the iron-tanned hide resulted in black rot, which caused the surface of the pouch to be extremely friable. Additionally, a large portion of the undyed quillwork was eaten away by insects, whereas the dyed quills remained mostly intact. As part of developing my treatment plan and to better understand the materials of the pouch, I did X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy on the metal of the tinkler cones (which turned out to be brass) and to confirm that the pouch was iron-tanned. I also confirmed that the hair in the tinkler cones was deer hair using Polarized Light Microscopy, looking at the samples as a whole and in cross-section. My treatment consisted mainly of creating fills for the large portions of missing quill out of toned hard Tyvek, which is able to replicate the strength and sheen of the quillwork, and stabilizing the strap of the pouch which was tangled and structurally fragile due to missing quills. Finally, I created a new housing box that fit the dimensions of the bag and did not require the strap to be bent in order to fit as the old housing box did.
Front of the Lenape hide pouch prior to treatment. The quillwork on the pouch isn’t as bright due to the black powder coming off the surface of the hide from black rot and the hide thongs of the strap are tangled and unstable due to the loss of quillwork. (Image: R. Thomas)
Annotated image of the Lenape pouch after treatment depicting the areas of toned Reemay and Tyvek repairs. (Image: R. Thomas)
Photomicrograph of deer hair fiber mounted with DI water. Image taken with Leica DFC 290HD microscope camera on Nikon E 600 Polarizing Light Microscope. 100x (148x with camera). (Image: R. Thomas)
In addition to completing my assignments within Native New York, I was also given the responsibility of helping out beyond conservation treatments in assisting with inventorying materials and technology throughout the lab and I spent a week working in Collections rehousing textiles from the museum's Arctic Collection. I feel immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such amazing conservators, fellows, and staff.
At NMAI, I was exposed daily to the issues in the conservation of Native art and artifacts, including consultations with tribal representatives, handling restrictions, and repatriation. This experience piqued my determination to further my education in Indigenous art history so I enrolled in a Native American Art History certificate program at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Embracing the spirit of online learning, I was able to complete the program entirely online, from my apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina. My two semesters at IAIA were incredibly engaging and I left with a greater appreciation for and understanding of Indigenous art history. I hope to use what I learned - and what I endeavor to continue learning - to be an active ally for Indigneous communities throughout my future education and career.
Although navigating the pre-program landscape can be difficult at times, as I reflect on my experiences since graduating in 2018, I wouldn't change a thing - and I am excited for my future as I prepare to apply to graduate school and further my career in conservation.
I would like to thank the staff at the Oberlin Heritage Center, especially my supervisor Amanda Manahan and Executive Director Liz Schultz, my supervisors at the National Museum of the American Indian: Marian Kaminiz, Susan Heald, and Emily Kaplan, and my academic advisor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Amber-Dawn Bear Robe.
— Riley Thomas, University of Delaware B.A. Art Conservation & Anthropology '18