Handle with care: Ninepipes Museum confronts preservation challenges

Posted April 15, 2019

This story ran in The Missoulian on April 13, 2019

CHARLO — Every museum has signs reading “Please don’t touch.” But what if survival of the exhibits depends on occasional touching?

“A lot of these things are buckskin,” Jo Cheff said of a display of ceremonial dresses and saddle throws in the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana, which she directs. “If you don’t use them, they tend to get brittle. But you don’t want to handle them too much.”

Conundrums like that bedevil management of the Ninepipes Museum’s collection of prehistoric Indian tribal artifacts and relics of the Mission Valley’s settlement era. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded the museum an assessment grant that testifies to both the extent of the problem and the importance of its displays.

To get an NEH grant puts a stamp of national significance on that little museum,” said Pat Roath, a museum preservation specialist with the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell. “Their collection was put together with a great deal of knowledge and great deal of love. It demonstrates a commitment to things that have meaning to that region and that family.”

Bud and Laurel Cheff started the museum in 1998, framing the 12,000-square-foot building with massive Ponderosa pine logs felled in a 1995 storm. Bud Cheff was an ardent collector of Western memorabilia, especially items about which he knew a personal connection or backstory. The Cheffs also invited community members to display their art or artifacts in the building.

But in the “no good deed goes unpunished” department, the Ninepipes Museum has become entangled in its own success. Most museums present a relatively small fraction of their actual holdings, rotating pictures and dioramas in and out of public view. Jo Cheff said her father liked the look of a well-stocked display, rather than the sparse, minimalist look of many art exhibits.

“We have most of our items out,” Cheff said. “That’s part of what we need to change. We have to figure out what needs to be put away.”

Like an iceberg, 90 percent of museum activity floats by out of sight. The NEH grant, and another from the Montana History Foundation, will help Ninepipes start planning its way through several future challenges.

The first involves inventorying all the holdings. Museums need to know which are on loan, which are owned, and which are uncertain. Which are real and which are copies? What about duplicates or redundant examples?

Almost more important than the basic inventory is the checkup of physical conditions. Consider a Sioux woman’s buckskin dress with blue glass beadwork across the shoulders and front. Museum beading expert Vernita Charlie pointed out fraying spots where some of the decoration was disintegrating.

“This is called lazy-stich style, although it’s definitely not lazy work,” Charlie explained. The dressmaker used an awl made from a splinter of elk leg bone to poke channels within the outer layer of leather (without punching all the way through). Then she would take a thread of sinew split from a leg tendon. She’d keep all but the tip of the sinew moist. The dry tip would become hard enough to work like a needle and drive through the channel for a stitch. The dressmaker could then string several tiny glass beads on the sinew before securing it through another awl hole. That was the “lazy” part, compared to applique techniques where each stitch held a single bead.

Several things can go wrong over time, especially when dealing with a dress made in 1890. Charlie listed a variety of mistakes a beader can make, such as making the awl channel too shallow or stringing the sinew too tight so the stitch tears out. Changes in humidity can make the sinew come loose, or dry out to the point it breaks.

Then there’s something called “bead disease,” where the aging glass beads crumble. And the fact that a homegrown museum like Ninepipes has depended on old department store mannequins to present its clothing, which may or may not have good archival properties to keep fabrics from decaying.

“Mishandling is the biggest threat,” Charlie said. Simply moving a museum piece without proper preparation can destroy it. Staff members need specific training in what can or can’t be done to each artifact.

And the artifacts themselves may be the problem. A framed display of letters from writer James Willard Schultz (who recorded many Piegan tribal legends, and campaigned to establish Glacier National Park) is mounted on an acidic backing that’s eating away at the stationary.

“This room gives Pat fits,” Cheff said of the preservation specialist as she led the way into Ninepipes’ wildlife diorama display. The big hall features life mounts of buffalo, wolves, antelope and other wildlife, as well as Salish elk-skin tipis and family scenes. The burlap floor covering and the dried brush used to mimic a prairie meadow might host feather mites or fungal spores that can damage other artifacts. And they’re virtually impossible to clean, allowing dust to gather in places where it can degrade relics.

Every museum in the world faces these problems. The grants will help Ninepipes stay abreast of the challenge, as well as figure out ways to attract more visitors by better deploying its assets.

“I visited the University of Montana archives and got into their basement,” Cheff said. “They’re trying to preserve and find space for what they have, too. We’re a tiny microcosm of that. But it still amazes me how much work goes into being a small museum.”