Analysis and Treatment of Important Yup'ik Ceremonial Masks

Two ceremonial Yup'ik masks from the National Museum of Natural History were the focus of a conservation and materials analysis project. Both are part of the Nelson Collection, a cache of almost 10,000 objects collected by Edward William Nelson on his Alaskan expedition from 1877 through 1881.

Because the masks are important representations of the Yup'ik culture, one main goal of this project was to reassemble the masks correctly and restore them as closely as possible to their original condition. The materials and techniques of manufacture were analyzed to gather technical information that served as the background for optimal conservation and restoration. The pigments and binders used, as well as the paint application method, were investigated and the analytical results will soon be submitted for publication. This new set of analytical data, sampled from Nelson's collection of objects (generally minerals) of a known age and origin, will support and add to the information available in relevant literature. The findings will also serve as a reference for future studies of objects from the Arctic region. The review of relevant literature indicates that this study is the first of its type.

The conservation and restoration treatment has greatly changed the overall appearance of the two masks. However, the analytical results gave important guidance in the treatment design, and insured the continued research potential of the masks. Because of the relocation and reconstruction of missing parts, and their reassembly, the two masks are now closer to their original impressive and powerful appearance. They are now on protective mounts, ready for storage or display.

The treatment and analysis brought together the scientific, conservation, and curatorial staff in NMNH and MCI. From NMNH, Greta Hansen of Anthropology Conservation Laboratory and Bill Fitzhugh of the Anthropology department offered treatment guidance, as well as archival and contemporary references. In addition, Bob Isaac of Mineral Sciences of NMNH, detailed part-time to MCI, did much of the X-ray diffraction work for pigment identification. The staff of MCI, primarily Walter Hopwood and Ron Cunningham, provided organic binders and elemental analysis, and interpretation of data. Katharina Geier, under the supervision of Mel Wachowiak, Senior Furniture Conservator, prepared the various samples for analysis and completed the conservation treatments.