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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Conserving a Nipmuc Storage Basket Using Unexpected Materials

In art conservation, unexpected materials can be used to repair damaged art objects. Take for example Storage Basket (1998.123), a mid–19th century Nipmuc ash splint woven basket that will be included in the upcoming Luce 3 Reinstallation of the Lower Third American Gallery. It may be surprising to learn that the breaks and losses in the basket were repaired with Japanese paper, a material more commonly used by artists in printmaking.

Fig. 1. Before treatment, bottom corner (circled in white). Unknown Artist (Nipmuc Native
American Culture, New England, USA), Storage Basket (mid-19th century). Ash splints.

This acid-free paper, however, has been a popular restoration material among art conservators for quite a long time, especially by paper conservators. At WAM, Objects Conservator Paula Artal-Isbrand has used it for many years to repair artwork made of a broad range of materials such as ivory, glass, and even metal.

Fig. 2. After treatment, bottom corner (circled in white).

Members of the Nipmuc Native American Culture have traditionally resided in central Massachusetts, northern Rhode Island, and northern Connecticut. As they were displaced by European settlers in the mid-1700s, they began selling their traditional crafts such as baskets and works made from beads to the tourist industry.1 By the late 1800s, most Native American baskets were made primarily for decorative rather than utilitarian purposes.2

In 2019, members of the Nipmuc Nation Native American Tribe visited WAM and met with Erin Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art. They expressed their desire to the integrate Native American objects into the WAM collection and exhibitions. When they came across Storage Basket—to the mutual delight of the curator and members of the Nipmuc Nation—they immediately recognized its shape and size and were able to help reattribute the basket to the Nipmuc culture.

An identifying feature of Nipmuc baskets are the bands of narrow-fitting splints near the bottom edges and specific symbolic decorative painted designs. If you look closely around the circumference the basket you can see faded blue and red painted representations of vines, leaves, berries, and geometric triangle medallion motifs. When it arrived at the conservation lab, Storage Basket was covered in a light layer of dust and had several breaks and losses at the bottom edges and corners. The goal of the conservation treatment was to improve the structural and visual integrity of this unique work in the collection, and hopefully restore it so that the characteristic Nipmuc basket design, which had unfortunately faded to a great extent, would become more visible.

Materials used in conservation treatments need to be reversible and compatible with the original materials of the artwork, i.e. chemically inert. In addition to fulfilling these requirements, Japanese paper is lightweight, yet strong, and able to conform to the different break surfaces in the basket. Ash splints, the original material of the basket, are made by pounding the trunk of a tree with a mallet until the wood “separates into thin strips along the natural growth rings.”3

Fig. 3. During treatment: Toning.

However, ash splints were intentionally not used as fill material because it is important that the materials used by the conservator be different from the materials used by the artist. This is a rule of ethics conservators abide by as they do not their work to compete with that of the artist.

A large part of a conservator’s job is documenting the condition and treatment of the object. Before embarking on the conservation treatment, the basket was carefully examined to understand its materials, construction and condition issues. High-quality photography was conducted before, throughout, and after the treatment process. All conservation work proposed and conducted on the object was recorded.

Fig. 4. During treatment: Cutting.

Treatment began by carefully reducing the surface grime and dust on the basket using a range of “dry” cleaning techniques, including brushes and a specialty eraser. In an effort to prevent any distortions of the ash splint material, it was important to avoid introducing any moisture.

Fig. 5. During treatment: Re-weaving Japanese paper.

Next, Japanese paper was used to repair brakes and fill losses. Strips of Japanese paper were cut to the width of the missing weft and warp elements of the woven basket, toned with conservation grade acrylic paints to the exact color of the original basket material, and rewoven into the plaits of the basket with the delicate help of a few special tools. This delicate and meticulous process provided a safe method to repair this Native American object.

Fig. 6. After treatment, interior view.

—Elle Friedberg, Pre-Program Intern in Conservation, and Paula Artal-Isbrand, Objects Conservator
May 19, 2020

1 “Nipmuc Basket.” Connecticut Historical Society. Accessed April 13, 2020.

2 Ibid.

3 “Nipmuc Splint Basketry.” NativeTech. Accessed April 13, 2020.

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