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Looking to the past, stepping into the future


Arizona Daily Wildcat

This pottery, part of a 20,000 piece collection housed at the Arizona State Museum, is in danger of decaying due to the humid Tucson weather. On Friday, the White House granted the museum $400,000 to help pay for a new, environmentally controlled facility that will cost nearly $1.5 million.

By Ty Young
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
July 19, 2000
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Arizona Summer Wildcat

Arizona State Museum receives federal assistance to help

Although Arizona State Museum officials and conservators are doing all they can to preserve their internationally acclaimed pottery collection, the artifacts within the museum walls are slowly perishing, and with them, hundreds of years of ancient Native American history.

Understanding the importance for the collection, the White House on Friday granted $400,000 to the museum as part of the Save America's Treasures millennium initiative to help create a new vault housed at the University of Arizona.

"We were designated in a project of that program because the collection has national significance, and it faces an urgent preservation need," said Miriam Nickerson, director of development and marketing for Arizona State Museum.

The collection is the largest Southwest Native American pottery acquisition in the world, amassing over 20,000 clay pots and vessels. The pottery's importance is in the painted designs, offering a window into past generations of Southwestern Native Americans.

A constant fluctuation of humidity in the Tucson air has plagued the vessels through the act of "spalling," a term conservators use to describe the destructive effects of salt deep within the ceramic pot rising through the surface.

It is the defaced surface that has conservators worried, especially with the importance placed on the painted designs and pictures. "The surface design is important because we can tell by the colors what they used to make the color - did they use a bush, a berry, a leaf? Did they crush up bugs to get that color?" Nickerson said. "There are images on the design that reflect the mythology. there are images that reflect history of the time."

"If (spalling) is allowed to continue, the whole structure of the ceramic pot begins to crumble and it can break apart completely. The design and the beauty are slowing dying. Each object holds hundreds of years of stories and history and culture and it is decimated by this process," she said.

Museum officials have designed a construction project attempting to combat this deterioration. When completed, one wing of the museum will be converted into a closed environment where nearly every variable is controlled by museum conservators. Under this plan, the effects of spalling should end - as well as problems caused by light and heat.

The project will cost nearly $1.5 million, with $400,000 already supplemented by the White House grant.

While the preservation of the pottery is the most integral part of the project, the design will allow for public viewing and research through the glass wall of the vault.

The collection, which is now held in five rooms in the museum, will finally be complied into one area.

"This will be the first time that this amazing collection will be gathered together in one place and accessible to the public. Now nobody can see them," said Nickerson. "We all have huge amounts in our storage vaults, and this is a way that we can make that accessible to the public."

The new vault will also solve another problem. With more than 20,000 pieces in the collection, some pots have sustained damage at the hands of over-crowding.

"This will give us a way to store them safely, to relieve over-crowding, put it in a controlled environment so that it will be preserved for generations and make it accessible to the public," Nickerson said.

Nickerson added that while museum officials are happy with the financial support from the White House, there is still much more work to be done before the project can even get off the ground.

"We're doing fundraising and we have a number of grant applications out. we would like to get corporate sponsors," she said.

National Acclaim, public education

The fact that the White House recognized the collection and the museum was a feat in itself - displaying the importance of the pottery and its relevance to the past and present.

"This collection reflects both ancient and contemporary work and is particularly important because it is a resource not only for scholars, researchers, and the general public, but it is a resource for the native American community as well," Nickerson said.

As a testament to the importance of the acquisition, Nickerson noted that only 47 other projects were awarded through the Save America's Treasures initiative. Others included Thomas Jefferson's Plantation Montecello, George Washington's Valley Forge Headquarters, Mark Twain's House and various Smithsonian collections.

Nickerson said the Southwestern Native American culture and history is prevalent through each generation, and is depicted through the pottery.

"They represent cultural and artistic traditions that are still very much alive in the Native American communities today," she said. "It is a tie back through time for the Native American community, but the traditions that have started in ancestral times are very much alive and flourishing. The artistic traditions come from some of the ancestral things that we have in the collection."

When completed, the vault will allow for museum officials to better educate the public on a number of fronts, Nickerson said. "When we have it in a situation that is healthy, we can use those pots more," she said. "We can take them out for researchers, we can take them out for exhibition, we can loan them to other institutions for exhibits. This solution will allow the collection to have significantly increased intellectual access and public access as well.

Heading into the future

Now in its funding faze, the vault project is still years from completion. Still, officials expect it to be the first of many changes made to the Arizona State Museum.

"This is a cornerstone project for a bigger effort," Nickerson said. "This situation with the humidity and the overcrowding that affects all of our collection - in other words, you can imagine what it does to a basket, or the fibers in a textile or a weaving or a rug."

Nickerson added that the pottery was in such a need for preservation, that museum officials were forced to push up the time-line for the project. Had they waited any longer to address the need, the pots would continue to deteriorate, along with the years of history.

"We have an expert staff in the area of conservation. They have done everything," she said. "The only thing left at this point is to create an environment - so we have a huge renovation and expansion program project that we will be under-taking a capital campaign.

"The pottery is the most urgent need - we can't wait for this campaign, it may be five years in the future before we get enough money to break ground, and another two or three years for construction. This is an urgent preservation need, so we need to address our pots, but we hope the pots will help draw attention to museums over-all preservation needs," she added.

As the first step in an expensive process, museum officials expect the future of the collection to last as long as its past.

"I think it is something that the university should really, really be proud of, and all of Tucson as well," Nickerson said.

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