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Canoe Restorations at the Sheldon Jackson Museum

Imagine this cleaning job: dusting a 22-foot-long, 3-foot-wide birch bark canoe with a cotton swab. That is just part of the work that was done in the Sheldon Jackson Museum in the summer of 2002 when staff members took on the task of restoring a century-old Athabascan birch bark canoe. This traditional water craft underwent a thorough cleaning in addition to prow reconstruction and other structural and aesthetic repairs. Visitors were able to watch this work as it progressed in the Museum’s gallery.

Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Museum’s founder, collected the canoe and donated it to the collection some time before 1898, said former Curator Peter Corey. Although no information is available about where the canoe was made, it is likely that it was collected somewhere along the Yukon River.

"That’s a guess based on his [Jackson’s] contacts," Corey said.

The canoe has been part of the Museum’s permanent display since at least 1904. Among its more serious problems was some front-end damage that occurred a number of years ago when it was moved, said Scott Carrlee, Conservator for the Alaska State Museums.

"A good foot or so of the prow broke off," Carrlee said. The prow damage may have resulted from a severe infestation of some type of wood-boring insect that tunneled through most of the canoe’s wooden supports, Carrlee indicated.

"It was also very dusty and dirty on the inside and the spruce root lashings were very brittle and fragile," he said. Corey noted that the caulking, a mixture containing spruce sap and animal fat, desiccated over the decades and fell away at the slightest touch.

Restoration work started with securing the spruce root lashings and any other loose parts with a special glue called Acrylic B-72. This adhesive is preferred for conservation work because it remains stable for a long time.

"Most glues change over time, sometimes losing their adhesive strength or yellowing," Carrlee said.

After the loose parts were secured, cleaning began with a soft brush and a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Workers then tackled stubborn dust deposits and surface grime with cotton swabs dampened in distilled water or a water-alcohol mixture. Carrlee acknowledged it was a tedious job, but stated that care must be taken with the aging materials.

The final step was repairing and replacing damaged parts, such as the prow. The Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, through the Native Artist Demonstrators Program, sponsored an Athabascan artisan to assist with the canoe project and to demonstrate other aspects of working with birch bark and willow root lashings.

The Alaska State Museums also received a $5,000 grant from the L.J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation to bring a conservation student to Sitka to help with the project. Carrlee, whose office is in Juneau, supervised the work took about a month.

Page last updated 04/18/2019