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A Journey in Conservation: Basketry

Many objects in a museum collection require conservation treatment to extend their longevity and First Nations basketry is no exception. Treating baskets requires multiple steps, but the general philosophy is simple: reduce the effects of damage by using a controlled, documented, and reversible way.

MOA Conservation Intern Josh cleaning a basket from the ethnographic collection.
MOA Conservation Intern Josh cleaning a basket from the ethnographic collection.

The first step of conversation is documentation. Once this is complete, it is time to treat the basket. Conservators consider a lot during the treatment of an object including; fragility, materials, and the object’s continuing health. The first round of cleaning is usually ‘dry’ cleaning. This includes brushing surface dust and debris from the object, as well as using cosmetic sponges to remove adhered dirt or accretions from the surface. Dry cleaning is an effective way to gently remove most of the dirt and dust from an object without being aggressive or invasive (because causing extra damage to the object only means more work later). In my experience with the basketry collection at the MOA, most require dry cleaning only.

However, some objects may be broken or torn and require more intensive treatment. The severity of damage can vary. For example, minor breakage such as a small tear in the middle of a basket weave is not likely to weaken the structure enough to cause further damage. Some breakage can even be natural stress-relief from changing environmental conditions such as fluctuating relative humidity.

Significant breakage can weaken the structural stability of the basket or result in loss.  For example, multiple breaks along the rim may leave the rim sagging, which then puts stress on the weave of the basket, and may lead to severe warping in the future.

To consolidate and repair more severe damage, I am using a Wheat Starch paste as an adhesive. This method of treatment is recommended by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) for use with paper artifacts (both basketry and paper are cellulose-based). Wheat starch paste is chemically inert and stable, as well as strong, workable, and adaptable. Once prepared, it can be watered-down without losing strength or applied as a relatively thick gel.

Once treatment is complete, the baskets are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and placed in archival-quality boxes. This protects them from dust, as well as light. Light and UV rays fade colours of both wood and paint. Baskets in storage should also be kept at a consistent temperature (below 25oC is best) and relative humidity (RH). Fluctuating RH can lead to splitting, and prolonged periods of high RH can cause mould.

Once conservation is complete, the basket is wrapped in acid free tissue and placed into archival quality boxes for long term storage.
Once conservation is complete, the basket is wrapped in acid free tissue and placed into archival quality boxes for long term storage.

It is important to consider all these factors before treatment, in order to make an informed decision. Any work that you do not feel comfortable completing yourself should be completed by a professional conservator.

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