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Artifacts get the once-over from national conservationist

Historical artifacts on display at museums would seem to be well protected, enclosed in glass cases, away from heavy traffic and hands that like to touch. But staff for the University Exhibit Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Anthropology say time takes its toll on precious items, and last week they learned just how much wear and tear artifacts in the Native American exhibits have experienced through the years.

"It's not like anything's really falling apart in the cases, but conservation has really taken off in the last couple of decades, and people are much more concerned with preserving the life of these objects," says Lisa Young, research scientist for the Museum of Anthropology, which owns the items that are on loan to the Exhibit Museum.

To help them identify the condition of artifacts in the collection, they called upon Jessica Johnson, conservator from the National Museum of the American Indian. Johnson is working with the latest and last museum of the Smithsonian Institutions, which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in Sept. 2004. Her involvement with the U-M museums was made possible by a
grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and because of her connection with Young, a colleague since graduate school.

During her four days on campus, Johnson examined the collection of some 169 artifacts and made recommendations for how to clean and repair them now, and preserve them for the future. Using rubber gloves to avoid getting oil from her hands on the items, she carefully looked at each piece to determine the extent of damage from light, insects and variations in climate. Her notes included comments about mounting devices, many of which have been in place for 40 years, that are harmful to itemsparticularly to those artifacts made from organic materials of vegetable and animal products.

Johnson says the U-M collection is in good shape overall. "Organic things don't do well and are damaged by light, so I've seen a lot more damage on the organic things," Johnson says. "The inorganic things mostly are just dirtyyou can vacuum or wipe them off fairly easily. I did expect to see more insect damage because you often see that with things that have been on display for a long time in older buildings like this, but I haven't really seen that at all."

Exhibit Museum Director Amy Harris says the conservation effort is the first in a long-range plan to update the American Indian exhibits, which are
viewed by more than 28,000 school children each year, and up to 80,000 visitors altogether. The exhibits portray the lives of three American Indian tribes still in Michigan, the Ojibwa (Chippewa), Bodewadimi (Potowatami) and the Odawa (Ottawa). They also include artifacts from tribes in other areas of the country.

"The goal of our work is to communicate to our visitors that native people are still alive todaythey're thriving," Harris says. "Their culture is active and changing, just like other cultures."

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