The Conservation of Totem Poles
By: Beth Boyce
One of the most exciting features of the Museum of Anthropology is the outdoor totem pole display. The outdoor totem poles are subject to all the forces of nature. This presents some larger life challenges for the conservator, whose job it is to preserve these beautiful works. Conservators are generally used to working in a quiet lab space with small hand tools and objects that are not several stories tall! Every couple of years the poles undergo some regular maintenance. We just finished completely this maintenance and we thought we wanted to share the process of what happens when we work with the totem poles. To start, we need the assistance of a boom-lift, and a crane, in order to reach the tops of the tallest poles!
- The first step is to remove accumulated lichen and moss growth on the poles. We remove the lichen and moss using small wooden hand tools and brushes. The lichen and moss cause the wood to retain moisture and begin to rot. This can break down the surface of the wood and cause the painted and carved surfaces to be lost. While we cannot stop this growth altogether, we can help to slow it down by removing as much as we can.
Before and after removing the lichen and moss from the top of the pole.
Western Red Cedar is an exceptional material that has anti-rot and anti-fungal properties right in the wood, so it does not rot very easily. However, the materials in the wood that prevent fungal growth are not present in the very center of the tree, the pith, and so this is the area that rots first. Totem poles, when they do begin to deteriorate, rot from the inside out, so what looks like a very stable pole, may be completely rotten or even hollow on the inside. In order to check the interior of the poles, we use a tool called a Resistograph that allows us to see what’s going on inside the poles and helps us to determine how sound the wood really is.
Another important measure is to check the caps on the poles. These are sheets of metal that help to prevent the rainwater from soaking right down into the poles causing the wood to rot. All the outdoor poles at the Museum are capped. This year we replaced one of the caps on one of the poles.
We’re completed the maintenance for this year, so we’re finished with cranes and boom-lifts for a while. We want to thank everyone for their patience while we were doing this important work; we know it was hard to see the poles with the boom-lift in the way!