Digitizing Native museum collections and the future of repatriating sacred objects

Sealaska Heritage Institute heritage director Chuck Smythe watches Monday, August 14, 2018, as collections manager Heather McClain and summer archives intern Miranda Worl set the bentwood box drum down to return to the collections. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)
Sealaska Heritage Institute heritage director Chuck Smythe watches Monday, August 14, 2018, as collections manager Heather McClain and summer archives intern Miranda Worl set the bentwood box drum down to return to the collections. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)

The Alutiiq Museum, which is based in Kodiak, will begin to digitize its collection with the eventual goal of expanding and digitizing collections from other museums.

Museum collections curator Amanda Lancaster says they’re already using a database and have most of their objects catalogued.

“We use a database called Collective Access…. So, we already have sort of the backend where we have all of our objects catalogs to some degree,” she said. “And so we’ll be adding our ethnographic objects to this very specific part of the database. And then later, we’d like to add Alutiiq collections that are around the world. So, there’s some at the Alaska State Museum all the way to France and Finland and beyond.”

The database would allow people to view the collections in one central place.

“I’d like to kind of see like a map that has little pins everywhere and you can just kind of go to the pin and look and see these Alutiiq collections,” she said.

In Juneau, Sealaska Heritage Institute began a similar process that studies physical objects through photographs, electromagnetic patterns and other ways.

The process called photogrammetry allows for three-dimensional documentation of cultural objects, such as carvings, which can be studied in-depth and remotely. The technology could potentially make older pieces held by museums available to artists around the world who might otherwise not have access to the work, says director Rosita Worl.

“It’s really time consuming and hopefully the technology is going to be kind of improved,” she said.

Sealaska Heritage Institute also has worked with 3-D printing to help preserve objects, as well as infrared imaging to see details obscured over time. And it brings up similar questions the Alutiiq Museum brought up on what to make available and for whom. An example of something that might be held behind a privacy wall would be images of clan crests.

This Tlingit rattle was scanned and 3D printed with the beads inside. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Sealaska Heritage Institute has fought for items that are sold at public auction – and sometimes on online auction houses and even eBay.

In one way, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has inspired multiple pieces of legislation.

Worl says one piece of legislation she’s working on would stop the export of sacred objects overseas and another would give a tax incentive and other benefits to collectors for returning objects to Indigenous people.

Currently many collectors want to sell items and organizations like Sealaska Heritage may not be able to raise enough money to buy them back. And there’s nothing to incentivize the collector to donate the item at a loss. But the legislation would be able to give the collector more compensation for donating an item back to a Tribe or Tribal organization.

Worl says she thinks museums are changing for the better.

“Some of these museums…are trying to follow the social movement that we are seeing in the country, not everywhere, but certainly it is a social movement where equity and the rights of minorities and Indigenous people. At least [they] are saying they [we] rights,” she said. “And so that’s progress.”

She also sees change in younger museum professionals.

“My colleagues are the old guys, and they are just totally opposed to repatriation and NAGPRA,” Worl said. “But I’m seeing the younger generation of museum professionals that are much more understanding and accepting of a Native American belief system.”

Worl says she rewatched footage of a ceremony honoring the return of a 100-plus-year-old Chilkat blanket in 2017. And she wanted to share that video with other museums and historians.

“I think it really exemplified how we feel, how we see things differently, how material objects can have spirit,” she said.

During that ceremony a Seattle couple returned the robe to Sealaska Heritage Institute. The exact origins of the blanket were difficult to determine, and Chilkat weavers planned to study the robe to see how it was made.

Listen to the extended podcast on repatriation at knba.org.

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