Thursday, May 26, 2011

Artistic Heritage & a Unique Object at the British Museum

In April 2011 the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) sponsored a trip for a delegation from SHI to travel to the British Museum to document and study their Southeast Alaska Native objects. The end goal of this undertaking is to produce a book on the collections at the British Museum, and work toward an exhibition of Masterpieces. SHI’s delegation was accompanied by Tlingit master carver Nathan Jackson and Tlingit artist Donald Gregory, who closely examined the pieces and gave information about them. While the British Museum’s Southeast Alaska Native object collection is not as large as some of those in the United States, some objects in the British Museum are very old and many are quite unique. A study of the British Museum’s collection can teach today’s practicing artists about traditional methods and mediums.

One object and medium of special interest was a baleen box dated to 1868, modeled after the style of bentwood box. It was attributed as likely being of Tlingit origin by Nathan Jackson. (image of box below) The baleen is brown, either from the artist dying it, or was naturally that color (which would be unusual for a humpback whale, if the baleen is in fact from a humpback). Nathan Jackson had not ever encountered a baleen box, and was unfamiliar with artists using baleen in boxes. Nathan Jackson stated he was inspired to attempt carving and making a similar baleen box. SHI’s Native Artist Committee recently held a meeting, and issued the challenge to Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists to study, learn, and revive historic artistic techniques.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a Native nonprofit established in 1980 to administer educational and cultural programs for Sealaska, a regional Native corporation formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The institute’s mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures. The institute collects cultural art for study, education, and exhibition. If you would like to donate cultural art to the institute contact the institute’s curator.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

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