Curating the Navajo Sand Paintings
by Kerri Wilhelm
One of my duties here at TARL involves assisting with any of the numerous collections-based projects that may be going on at any given time. Given the tiny size of our staff, we all wear many hats and have to pitch-in whenever and wherever as needed to ensure that proper care of the collections is being achieved. Over the course of this past summer Diane Ruetz and I were faced with ensuring the care of TARL’s very large collection of Navajo sand paintings. Recognizing that this is a significant collection of ethnographic art, a type of non-archeological collection we don’t specialize in here at TARL, Diane and I set about performing the documentation necessary to build what will become the permanent files for this collection. It was during documentation that we recognized the fragile nature inherent to this particular art medium: some of the sands had experienced color fade and the adhesives used in the construction of the plywood and particle board backers were leeching aldehydes through the front canvases and discoloring the paintings in places. Also, at least one of the sand paintings was showing signs of the sand exfoliating away from the canvas, a process we were keen to prevent. Informal condition assessments revealed that these pieces of two-dimensional art were in need of several things: 1. more protection from ambient UV and 2. an archival storage solution that would help mitigate acid migration in the backer materials and prevent any further damage associated with chemical and mechanical changes wrought by damaging particulates, pollutants and fluctuations in relative humidity. Diane set about gathering the dimensions for the paintings with the intent of researching the costs of purchasing ‘blue board’ curation boxes and I photo-documented the paintings. We began to plan our ‘boxing’ of the sand paintings.
While we awaited the arrival of the archival boxes from Gaylord and continued with the photo-documentation, I got in touch with a group of people who I knew would have dealt with this specific type of ethnographic art before: the collections staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. I was put in touch with Victoria Cranner who was then the Acting Collections Manager at the NMAI at the Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, MD. Victoria had some really helpful advice about they store their Navajo sand paintings and why. She was kind enough to include photographs of the storage techniques used by the NMAI which I have included below. Victoria’s (paraphrased) advice:
1. best to lay them flat, if you happen to be blessed with the space to do so
2. make boxes for them out of archival blue board, lined with volara or ethafoam and make little bumpers out of foam backer rod
- if dust is a concern, make sure the box for the painting has a lid
4. high temperatures could potentially loosen the fixatives originally used to adhere the sand, so store the sand paintings in an environmentally stable location (about 70®F and 48%RH)
5. off-gassing (of the aldehydes in the particle board) is possible, but since these (sand paintings) were made in the 1970’s most of the gasses have probably dissipated
Below are images provided by Victoria Cranner of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian illustrating the storage of Navajo sand paintings at the Cultural Resource Center.
Victoria was a huge help in helping staff here at TARL identify the best means and manner in which to store our large collection of Navajo sand paintings. Of course, placing the paintings into the boxes means that no one can see the beautiful artistry or enjoy the traditional Navajo chantway stories that are being told with the paintings. It is the hope of staff here at TARL that we can locate a suitable institution interested in housing, and hopefully displaying, these beautiful works of art. Below are images of our ongoing efforts to bring this collection up to current best standards in object curation.