UPPER WEST SIDE — The American Museum of Natural History has announced a $14.5 million project to restore and enhance its oldest exhibit hall in time for the museum's 150th anniversary.
The Northwest Coast Hall opened in 1899 under the direction of museum curator Franz Boas, and offers a glimpse into the lives of the indigenous peoples living along America's northwest shores circa the 19th century. The exhibit includes tools they used to eat and hunt, as well as ceremonial masks and decorative pipes.
"At the time, [the exhibit] was radical because Franz Boas' approach was that cultures should stand on their own and should not be shown in comparison to other civilizations," explained Lewis Bernard, AMNH's chair of the board of trustees.
Judith Levinson, the museum’s director of conservation, said the department is beginning its work with the six 12-feet-tall totem poles of red cedar that line the hall, before moving onto the extensive library of nearly 1,800 smaller items. She added that restorations and interventions done in the past have either darkened or entrapped dirt in the ancient wood and fragile paint of the totem poles.
“To try and take off the coatings, the dirt in the coatings, and the dirt under the coatings that’s been pushed into the paint is going to be very complex,” Levinson said.
The museum is also drawing on members of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, whose work represented in the hall, for cultural consultation and context.
“In renovation, we now seek to enhance [the hall’s] impacts with current perspectives, not ignoring the sometimes problematic history of collecting the effects of this hall or those of this period,” Peter Whiteley, the museum's curator of North American Ethnology, said at a press conference on Monday.
“These objects are interesting, beautiful, powerful and they’re loaded with meaning,” Ron Hamilton, a First Nations artist and cultural historian, said. "The complex metaphors that these things provoke, the belief systems, the philosophies, the ethics, the morals, the principles on which our societies are based on. We need to have that stuff surface."
The museum is expecting to complete its restoration project by 2020, to align with the its 150th anniversary. On top of the restored totem poles, the museum will also be displaying additional never-before-seen Native American artwork, tapestries, and masks.