Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

The Linda Slaughter Painting and the Meaning of Conservation, Preservation, Restoration, and Repairs

As curator of collections management, I get asked from time to time if we ever restore artifacts at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The easy answer to that is no. But then the visitor will point out the recent work carried out on the Linda Slaughter painting. This is when we have a little conversation about what we mean by conservation, preservation, restoration, and repairs.

A painted portrait of a woman with long, dark curls in her hair, an orange choker necklace with pearls forming a circle in the middle, a longer pearl nexklace, and an off the hsoulder dress or blouse with lacy fringe and a blue bow in the middle at chest level. The painting is framed in a light colored wood.

Portrait of Linda Slaughter before conservation. SHSND 2920

On the surface, conservation, preservation, restoration, and repairs all seem to imply the same thing, but in the museum world each is very different. Repairs mean fixing something that is broken or torn. For instance, if someone glues a vase back together or sews up a hole in a garment, they are repairing it.

Restoration is the process of taking an object back to a nearly new condition. Think about the person in the garage restoring a 1964 Mustang to how it looked coming off the factory floor. They usually have no issues repainting the body or getting the necessary new parts. This is why we don’t restore artifacts at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Restoration erases the artifact’s signs of use. How an item was used is part of an object’s history, and we don’t want to destroy the history.

Preservation is preventing damage and reducing the rate of deterioration that all artifacts experience. This is what we strive for here at the State Museum and is in line with best practices at most other museums.

Finally, conservation aims to improve the condition of an artifact by stabilizing its physical problems and addressing surface disfigurement caused by deterioration and/or damage. Conservators strive to retain as much of the original materials as possible, but their work should always be reversable and not cause damage to the object in the long run. Conservators are highly trained individuals with advanced degrees, which include knowledge of art history, chemistry, and other sciences. They are also usually talented artists.

Occasionally, I will repair an object—this usually involves sewing a button that has fallen off a garment back on so it can be exhibited. Even then, the repair is documented with before-and-after photographs as well as a report of what was done, including all materials used. But most of the time what I do is preservation. I make sure that the artifacts’ environment is correct, that the lights are not too bright to cause fading, that there are no bugs or vermin to damage the artifacts, and that any materials we use around the artifacts are acid free, inert, or archivally safe.

Every so often, we will have a damaged artifact that requires the services of a trained conservator. The painting of Linda Slaughter—pioneer educator, author, and activist—is an example of such an item. In preparation for the 150th anniversary of Bismarck’s founding later this spring, we began thinking about what artifacts could be used to mark the occasion. We all know the significant role Slaughter played in the early years of Bismarck and North Dakota and thought her painting would be an excellent way to explore these important contributions. (For an excellent intro to Slaughter’s fascinating life and achievements, see this earlier blog post by Manuscript Archivist Emily Kubischta.)

But we had a problem. There was a large tear in the neck of the portrait, which had been badly repaired in the past. Also, the varnish had yellowed with age, and we would later find out there was other damage. I am not a trained conservator, and this kind of damage is well beyond anything I would attempt.

A close-up of the neck portion of a portrait painting showing a tear in the canvas.

Close-up of damage to neck.

The back of a framed painting showing a ton of dirt on the canvas

Previous repair to the tear in the neck included gluing a piece of fabric to the back to stabilize the edges. Courtesy MACC

In August 2018 we took the painting to the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) in Minneapolis for an evaluation and cost estimate for the conservation.

Once the process began, Alexa Beller, a painting conservator at MACC, wrote to say, “I have consolidated the tears, punctures, and areas of loss with a stable adhesive to prevent additional loss of paint. I then cleaned the verso [back] of the canvas with a dry brush, vacuum, and soot sponges. There was a bulge running across the lower edge of the canvas caused by lots of dirt and debris trapped between the canvas and stretcher.”

The back of a framed painting showing a bunch of dirt on the canvas with dirty sponges sitting below

Back of painting with the dirty sponges used to clean it. Courtesy MACC

In her email Beller also noted, “After lots of testing, I then began to clean the recto [front] of the painting with a pH adjusted aqueous [water] solution to remove the accumulated grime. I reduced the discolored natural resin varnish with a solvent mixture after additional testing. This solution also reduced some spots of discolored overpaint across the surface. There was additional grime and dirt trapped underneath the old varnish, so I made a second pass with the same aqueous solution. ... Reduction of the varnish revealed clearer tonality and more details in the figure’s hair and face.”

A painted portrait of a woman with long, dark curls in her hair, an orange choker necklace with pearls forming a circle in the middle, a longer pearl nexklace, and an off the hsoulder dress or blouse with lacy fringe and a blue bow in the middle at chest level. The left half of the painting shows it as it was before being cleaned, and the right half shows it after being cleaned. It is much brighter after being cleaned.

Slaughter portrait showing the right half of the canvas after cleaning. Courtesy MACC

Beller also told us in her email: “After cleaning I began to remove the three patches on the verso and their adhesive residues with a scalpel. ... I then locally humidified these areas to relax the tears and punctures into alignment in preparation for mending tears and canvas inserts for the punctures.”

Beller put in weeks of work just on testing, observing, planning, and cleaning the painting. It then took months more to finish the work, as she needed to repair the tears and holes, apply a new varnish, and fill in the areas of paint loss. It is a slow process to let materials dry, settle, and cure.

Part of the process involved applying a new stable and non-yellowing synthetic resin varnish to the surface. Beller explained, “This allowed me to really see all the fully saturated colors and tones to begin filling the losses with a pigmented wax mixture and inpainting abrasions and losses with a conservation-grade synthetic resin medium. The inpainting materials we use are always selected to remain colorfast and fully reversible in solvents that will not adversely affect the original paint if my work ever needs to be removed.”

A woman with long, dark hair bulled back in a low ponytail wearing a dark blue shirt with a white shirt under it is touching up a painting of woman's portrait.

Conservator Alexa Beller works on inpainting areas of paint loss. Courtesy MACC

During the last stages of the conservation, Beller noticed some odd lines in the composition that seemed to be compositional changes. She wrote: “Sometimes this happens when an artist changes their sketch in the early stages of painting and continues on top of the older version. … With the grime and old varnish removed, the changes in this composition became slightly more visible to the naked eye.” Using an infrared camera that can detect underdrawings, Beller identified several changes to Slaughter’s necklace.

A grayscale infrared image of a painting of a woman shows pencil sketches where the artist orignially was going to place the necklaces the woman is wearing.

Infrared image showing the artist’s changes. Courtesy MACC

Our early records of the painting indicate that it arrived in the collection with a gilt frame. At some point the canvas was removed from the frame, and that frame was lost. While the current frame was nice, it wasn’t in a style typical of the late 1880s, and we decided that the portrait needed a new frame. We contacted Minneapolis-area framers for ideas and ultimately selected Andrew Webster of Master Framers to carry out the work. Webster and his team built a custom 1880s-style gilt-and-wood frame, which features current conservation techniques such as a lining on the inside of the frame to prevent future damage to the portrait. And since the frame was built specifically for this painting it provides a perfect and secure fit.

Before and after pictures of a painting of a woman. The left painting is darker and more dull witha  light wood frame. The right painting is brighter and has a very dark frame lined with a gold color around the painting.

The painting before (left) and after conservation.

The Slaughter painting is now ready for the State Historical Society to use in upcoming exhibits. And with proper handling and environmental conditions, the painting should continue to look great for a hundred years or more.

Interpreting Historical Games at the Pembina State Museum

There is a lot to consider when developing a new program at a state museum. Who is it for? What is it meant to teach? How will that message be conveyed? Where will the program take place? Why is this topic important? On top of all that you must consider what resources are available and what safety guidelines need to be followed. Ultimately, what you want most is for participants to be engaged and eager to learn. In my experience participants seem the most engaged when they are having fun. And what better way to accomplish this than with games?

I am currently working on a program called “Games from Pembina’s Past,” which includes a short virtual element for classroom use and a longer element that will allow visitors to the Pembina State Museum to play various games from the different peoples that settled at one time or another in the region, including the Anishinaabe, Dakota, Métis, Scots-Irish, Icelandic, and others. The program is in the early stages of development. We’re gratefully receiving tribal input regarding the Indigenous games that are included to ensure these are portrayed appropriately and respectfully. Stewart Culin’s “Games of the North American Indians” has also been helpful to my research. The book provides key details such as the Indigenous names for games, designs for the game pieces, and rules for play.

The first game I worked on was hoop and stick. According to Culin, the Chippewa of the Turtle Mountains called it tititipanatuwanagi. It was played by two competitors, one of whom rolled a small hoop ahead of themselves while running. The two competitors would throw their sticks, which had forked ends or were decorated with feathers, at the webbing woven around the hoop. Points were awarded based on where the stick struck in the webbing, much like darts. No points were awarded if the stick passed completely through the hoop.

A young girl and boy are outdoors chasing after a hoop rolling on the ground. The girl is wearing a red dress, and the boy is wearing a red long sleeved shirt, blue jesans, and brown boots. There are other children watching in the background.

Students visiting Fort Mandan State Historic Site play a version of hoop and stick. We hope to have students playing the game here at the Pembina State Museum very soon.

The difficulty of the game can be adjusted by changing the size of the hoop. Historically, hoops have ranged from two inches up to two feet in diameter. So far, I’ve made one 12-inch hoop for the museum based on a 1903 artifact from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. The original is currently held by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the coming weeks, I plan on making a few more hoops of varying sizes.

A brown hoop with light colored thread making a spider web like pattern in the inside with the middle being a red outlined square. To the sides of the hoop are pink sticks with a feather tied to the top. The ones on the left have a large white area towards the middle, and the ones on the right have a large black area towards the middle.

Pictured here is a hoop and stick set I made for the interpretive program using an embroidery hoop woven with artificial sinew to create the web pattern. The sticks are simple painted wooden dowels, with a feather attached to the end with more artificial sinew.

Culin groups different North American Indigenous games into broad categories, which prompted me to compare Indigenous games with games played by European settlers that fit into the same categories. I mentioned that hoop and stick shares some similarities to darts. Other comparisons can also be made. One that I make in the virtual element of the program is to compare a category of game played on an icy track that Culin “included under the general name of snow-snake” (which is also the name of the game itself) to the sport of curling.

Snow snake was played by almost every tribe in the colder climates of North America. The game was played with long, slender pieces of wood carved with heads resembling snakes. Another similar game that Culin includes under the umbrella category of “snow-snake” is ice gliders, also called bone sliders by Culin. Ice gliders were made with animal ribs and decorated with feathers. Snow snakes and ice gliders are slid with an underhand motion along an icy track, which has been prepared beforehand. The Chippewa often built these tracks by dragging a log through the snow and sprinkling the resulting trough with water to create an icy playing surface. Points are awarded to the player whose snow snake travels the farthest in each round.

Culin classifies snow snake as part of a category of games in which game pieces are “hurled along snow or ice.” In the case of snow snake, the pieces are often similar to darts or javelins. This type of game has obvious comparisons to curling, a team game played by sliding a large stone down an icy track toward a target area. I hope to help bridge a cultural divide for students by comparing something familiar, like curling, to something that isn’t, like snow snake or the ice glider game.

A few ice gliders are sitting upright  on a brown shag rg while a coupld lay on the floor. The are all white/offwhite with multiple long feathers at the top that are stuck into a curved, rectangular white/offwhite piece at the bottom.

A set of ice gliders, or bone sliders, made by the staff of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

More familiar to many North Dakota students than curling (and immediately recognizable to the Scottish settlers who built Fort Daer in Pembina in 1812) would be field or floor hockey, also known as shinny. Shinny refers to any game of field hockey where players use curved sticks to bat a ball through goalposts. The name shinny comes from an older Scottish Gaelic word, shinty, which is a game related to hurling and is of prehistoric Celtic (Irish/Scottish) origin.

European and Indigenous field hockey are uncannily similar, which may be why the Indigenous game bares the European name in Culin’s book. The Assiniboine name for the game is tah-cap-see-chah. Shinny was a common tribal game throughout North America. During the game, a buckskin or wooden ball is batted about with curved sticks by two opposing teams. According to Culin, the buckskin ball, weighted with clay or filled with cloth scraps, is the most common ball used by Plains tribes. Players are prohibited from holding the ball but in some versions of the game rules permit the swatting or passing of the ball with the hand. The object of the game is to pass the ball through a goal, usually a pair of stakes set at either end of a flat playing field.

Currently visitors to the Pembina State Museum can play hoop and stick, the hand (or stick) game, a type of guessing game, which we purchased from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indian artists, and double ball, another field sport like shinny which involves passing two balls bound by hide or string back and forth using sticks. Like shinny, the goal of double ball is to get the ball to a goal at either end of a playing field. We also have a few settler games available including hoop trundling, which involves rolling a hoop along with a stick. (Children would often race each other as they rolled the hoops.) Visitors can also try their hand at jacks and marbles, which though sometimes played today has waned in popularity. Research continues into what other types of games were played in the region both by Indigenous people and those of European origin. While we don’t have the facilities to include curling among our offerings, we do intend to add field hockey in the very near future.

Many blue pointed sticks with a red and black band on each sit next to a carrying bag that is yellow, green, red, and white with gray separating the triangular colors. There are also four smaller sticks that are light tan in color with two of them having a black band across the middle. The carrying case for those is brown with tan on the sides.

This handcrafted stick game set came from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and is available for visitors to play at the Pembina State Museum. In this guessing game, one team of players hides both black and white pieces in their hands. The other team must guess which hands hold the black pieces. Score is kept by passing sticks between the teams until one team wins all the sticks.

While many of the European games like curling, field hockey, and darts are still played today, their Indigenous counterparts have been mostly forgotten over the past centuries as tribes were expected to adapt to Western culture. But there are many efforts to revive these games. One example is the Ojibwe Winter Games held annually since 2012 at Camp Nawakwa near Lac du Flambeau in Wisconsin. The games were started to educate students about the history of Native sports. Snow snake, hoop and stick, atlatl throwing, and many more Indigenous sports are played by school students during these winter games. In some small way, I, too, hope to spark interest in Indigenous games at Pembina State Museum through the development of our new program. After all, sports and games are universal pastimes that unite people around the world.