Too much of a good thing?

I’ve decided that one of the problems with being an “object-person” and having a blog where I share my thoughts about some of my favorite pieces in our Museum collection is that it’s hard to know where to start! Sixteen-thousand objects is sort of a daunting number when you’re creating your first post… start with my favorite piece? Start with the newest piece? Start with the oldest piece? Hmmmm. All good options… or maybe something we know all about? Or perhaps something we know nothing about… there are certainly plenty of both in the ethnology & history collection at UAMN.

I guess I’ll go with a piece I first saw in the collection around 1997, while I was working on my M.A. in Cultural Anthropology at UAF, which resulted in the exhibit and publication,  Not Just a Pretty Face: Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures.

Athabascan Doll, UAMN

The mysterious Athabascan doll. Photo by Barry McWayne. Copyright UAMN.

This doll and the associated pieces (catalog number UA78-15-1AF) came into the museum collection in 1978, purchased from a man in Delta Junction, Alaska, who found it in an old trunk that he had purchased in a warehouse sale. It is Athabascan in origin, probably made in the early 20th century. It is so intriguing, for a number of reasons. My predecessor, Ms. Dinah Larsen, who ran the Ethnology department for over 30 years, made some initial contacts to help her decode the assorted pieces and parts of this doll.

First, Dinah wrote to the Numismatic Division at the Public Archives of Canada, to see what they could tell her about the coin that was found tucked into the black silk ribbon that is wrapped around the doll’s body. The response came from the National Currency Collection of the Bank of Canada – the coin is a Canadian 25-cent piece struck during the reign of Queen Victoria, produced by Heaton Mint, Birmingham, England, some time between 1871 and 1890.

The next person Dinah contacted was Dr. Robert A. McKennan, a well-known anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Interior Alaska and wrote a number of monographs on the Athabascan people of Alaska. Dinah included a photo of the doll, mentioning her thoughts regarding the original purpose of the doll, which was not as a child’s plaything but rather something more in the ceremonial realm. Dr. McKennan agreed. “I agree with you that it must have been more than an ordinary doll, and as you know, when faced with an insoluble question like this, anthropologists generally take refuge in the catch-all phrase of ‘ceremonial object.’ Certainly the care with which it was made, plus the profusion of ornaments, suggests such a use as a possibility, and to carry such a thought further, such a ceremonial use could have been continued over a period of time from the early contact era to the modern, which in turn might account for the increasing modernity of the decorative objects. However, I know of no such use of ceremonial dolls.”

This kind of dead-end happens frequently when you conduct research on museum objects that have no documentation when they’re acquired. However, to solve the mysteries, we have to go on and use our intuition and break apart the components of the objects, to see what we can decipher in bits.

Again, from McKennan’s letter of 1979:

The hair: Human hair, done in a style that appears Tanana, Gwich’in or Upper Yukon Athabascan. Also “suggests a male, but this is counterbalanced by the straight rather than pointed hemline on the coat. The nose ornament of course could fit either sex.”

The moccasins/boots: Similar groups.

The brass clock-parts: Often used in the early days for personal ornamentation.

Gloves: Mittens were, of course, the original form of hand-wear and gloves only came in after white contact. The dangling bits on the ends of the gloves’ fingers point to a ceremonial rather than functional use.

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During my coursework for my MA, I showed this doll to a number of Athabascan elders, all of whom seemed a bit uncomfortable in its presence. Little was said of it… which could either indicate that they didn’t know anything and were unwilling to conjecture, or that they did not want to talk about it.

I continue to be intrigued by this small, complicated little object. It lives in a cabinet in our doll collection, with other Athabascan figures made for sale or use. I will keep asking questions about it, and maybe one day we’ll learn its true origins. Or maybe not… and that’s okay because it’s the discussions and the ongoing use of the piece that will keep it alive.

These mysteries that present themselves to me nearly every day that I work with this collection is one of the reasons why I am so in love with being a Museum Collections Professional.

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