Museum Minute: Challenges Of Collecting Sensitive Material

Jan 18, 2019

Credit Courtesy of the Plains Indian Museum.

Museums are collections of objects that tell a story about something. At the Plains Indian Museum, the objects tell the story of the Plains Indian people. But sometimes the materials the objects are made out of are hard to conserve.

Hunter Old Elk, the curatorial assistant at the Plains Indian Museum, said there’s one object that exemplifies this very well.

“A cowrie shell dress yoke. This is a piece of ordainment that would go over the shoulders. It’s made of silk fabric and probably over 500 cowrie shells,” said Old Elk.

The yoke is from the Northern Plains around the 1890’s. It’s an everyday object, which Old Elk said is even harder to preserve because when it came to the museum it already had many imperfections.

“It’s been heavily faded from direct sunlight. It was worn for a very long time and it probably was on display or near a window or really harsh heat that it started to create this natural fading,” said Old Elk.

Old Elk said part of her job is to look at the conditions of objects, recognize the effects and then monitor it. But to her, the fading is unique.

“What I think is so special about it is you can see how time effects these objects in so many ways and under certain conditions,” Old Elk said. “They really change the nature of the piece. You can see how natural resources and natural light affect these in so many ways.”