Operation: Extraction

by Marlene Gray, Conservator

Pssst…well hello there! Want to hear about an extraction operation that recently happened at the Museum? The escapade involves the return of some very fragile objects to a land very far away. By far away, I mean Washington, D.C., but that is way up north! It was quite a production involving multiple agents and exotic locales, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Shall we start from the beginning and see what adventures the Collections Division has been up to for the past few months?

Background on the Case

Since the early days, the Museum has held a long-term loan agreement with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to display many of their Seminole artifacts here in the permanent gallery space. Over the years, the Museum has released custody of said objects back to NMAI, save for a few that remain in cases. Five objects – a turban plume, a belt loom, a set of two beaded earrings and a necklace were chosen this time around to be couriered back to Headquarters (a.k.a. NMAI) and take a break from the limelight of exhibit display. You see friends, objects like these tell pieces of the Seminole story to Museum visitors. In order to keep them around for many years into the future, objects should rest in a secure storage environment with cushy supports, away from the harmful effects of continuous light exposure and the poking and prodding of the stiff Plexiglas and metal mounts that have held them in a static position.

A few months before the big de-installation mission, Agent Registrar and Agent Conservator gathered intelligence from NMAI’s conservator, Susan Heald (a.k.a. the Transporter). Discussions were had in regards to how the objects were to be handled, travel arrangements to and from D.C. and Big Cypress, and the hazardous travels around alligator-infested canals. We had to downplay that last part until all the necessary paperwork had been completed, but this is the Everglades after all! Due to meticulous recordkeeping, we also had the condition reports, mount notes, and loan paperwork on hand from the previous decades which all make up a sort of “medical record” for each object that conservators can reference over time.

Leading up to the Day of the Drop

The Transporter and the amazing Special Forces team (a.k.a. three NMAI Conservation Fellows) were scheduled to arrive mid-day one sunny and warm Florida Monday and set up a base for the night at the RV Campgrounds across the street from the Museum. The Exhibits squad staked out the area in the Museum where the mission was to take place and sequestered it the night before so no prying eyes would suspect what activities were about to commence.

As part of the loan agreement with the NMAI, their conservator traveled from Washington, D.C. to Big Cypress Reservation with three Conservation Fellows to oversee the de-installation of the objects, carefully package them, and take them back home. The Exhibits squad and the Maintenance Intelligence Agency handled the physical challenge of moving the exhibit cases so that the objects could be removed by the Transporter and Special Forces (SF) team.

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Figure 1: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s Oscar Rivera, Nora Pinell-Hernandez, Siobhan Millar, and Fermin Carranza prepare to move case containing NMAI necklace and bracelets.

 

It was a delicate process removing the objects from their custom-made mounts which had protectively and faithfully prevented them from receiving any damage for years while on display. While the majority of the time conservators wear gloves to protect objects from the oils and dirt on our skin, sometimes it’s easier to handle delicate and small objects with clean hands so as to get a secure grip on them. Once off display, the objects were examined to compare previous intelligence – the older condition assessments – to the current state of the objects’ condition. The objects were then carefully concealed in discreet boxes for protection from various elements (extreme weather or an unwanted “brush pass” by a pesky bird for instance) and transported to the Safehouse, ahem, I mean Conservation Lab, situated in a separate building from the current location.

 

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Figure 2: NMAI’s Susan Heald, Caitlin Mahony, and Cathleen Zaret examine mounted objects.

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Figure 3: Susan Heald and Kate Blair examine objects for updating condition reports.

 

A Proper Sendoff to a Few Treasures

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Figure 4: Caitlin Mahony and Kate Blair secure twill tape ties to Ethafoam support.

 

Once the objects were safely moved to the Safehouse, the Transporter and SF team began the careful task of packing the delicate plume, loom, and accessory set for travel by plane back to the Washington HQ. pH neutral blue board supports, strands of securing twill tape, and soft Ethafoam sheets are materials often used in conservation that help protect fragile objects from the jostling of arduous travel and won’t cause any further damage to the objects by leaving a residue or impressions. With the objects safely secured and placed in a locked briefcase, this part of the mission was complete and the objects were ready to leave the Museum in a very official way!

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Figure 5: Kate Blair, Cathleen Zaret, and Caitlin Mahony display their detailed packing of the objects.

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Figure 6: The finished product: objects in their traveling briefcase!

 

Now that their identities can be revealed, a special thanks to Ms. Heald and the Fellows for the safe return of the objects to NMAI after many years at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki – they will surely be missed! For now though, Museum visitors can see silverwork accessories and an impressive silver worker’s kit, the remaining objects from a very special loan agreement between two institutions sharing in the preservation and interpretation of Seminole history. So the next time you see someone at the airport with an unsuspecting bag or briefcase, chances are they contain extremely boring documents and clean socks. However, you may be witnessing the completion of a successful museum extraction operation!

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Author: Collections Division

The Collections Division manages the Museum's collections, produces and maintains exhibits, conducts the oral history program, and staffs the Museum's village.

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