Royal Saskatchewan Museum
2340 Albert Street
REGINA SK S4P 2V7
The bones of a plesiosaur, a water-dwelling reptile reminiscent of the Loch-Ness monster, lie here. So does part of a prehistoric crocodile’s skull. Plant specimens, flat and thin, sit sandwiched between sheets of paper inside one of its small, windowless rooms. Scientific journals and studies rest on shelves. Collections of First Nations vests and moccasins are preserved here. And an array of Saskatchewan taxidermy that includes passenger pigeons, whooping cranes, a ruby-throated hummingbird and a bobcat are stored inside.
Somehow the brick and stone building that houses Saskatchewan’s provincial heritage collections and is almost 100 years old manages to appear unassuming. But inside, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) laboratory building is a bustling place where scientists, designers and technicians plan exhibits for the museum, study animal bones and care for the museum collections.
One March afternoon, Alyssa Becker-Burns carries a Blackfoot First Nations dress to display for a photo shoot occurring in the building’s large, front entryway.
The dress, made of hand-tanned hide, is sewn with tiny beads in intricate designs. She carries the dress—slowly, carefully—before hanging it gently on a rack. Then she rolls up the clear plastic protecting the garment—inch by inch by inch. She wears gloves so the oils in her hands don’t come in contact with the dress.
“I love beadwork and I love quill work—that embellishment. So anytime I see a piece like that, it’s a real treat,” she said in an interview after the shoot.
Becker-Burns is a conservator, someone who cares for significant cultural and scientific objects at the RSM.
In high school, she loved both science and art and wondered if there was a way to combine her two, seemingly opposite, interests. A perceptive high school teacher mentioned that conservation work might be a good fit for her.
After high school, Becker-Burns attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. While there, she became intrigued by textiles and textile processes, and completed a practicum (an unpaid, for-credit work term) with a private textile conservator. She said she became interested in what kind of textiles people conserve and why. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, majoring in (textile) Fiber.
A few years later, she finished a Master of Science degree in Textiles and Clothing, with an emphasis on textile conservation, in the department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta.
Her graduate degree complete, she embarked on a career path that led her away from her home-and-native-land and into the United States. She was a Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC and a Smithsonian Centre for Materials Research Fellow at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. She then returned to Canada to work as a mount-maker at the Royal Ontario Museum, before arriving at the RSM in 2006.
Every day is different at the RSM, Becker-Burns said. She could be photographing and packing fossilized teeth to be loaned to a researcher in another country, constructing storage mounts for newly received moccasins, or talking with curators to select what objects should go out for an off-site exhibit. Will this mounted Sandhill Crane withstand its display environment? Is its skin intact and is it stable on its base? Do its feathers and glass eyes need cleaning?
More routinely, the environments in which collections are stored need to be monitored; this includes light levels, humidity, temperature and pests. Much of the museum’s collection is made of protein-based materials, which makes it vulnerable to insect attacks. Insects like carpet beetles and clothes moths love the protein contained in hides, wool and feathers.
Sometimes a treatment is developed to prevent a collection object from further deteriorating. Although the result is often a cleaner-looking piece in better repair, the idea behind conservation treatment isn’t to make the object look like new, but to lengthen an object’s life and promote its understanding.
Signs of the object’s age and history must be respected, so any proposed changes to the objects are discussed with the curator. Cleaning might be done to better reveal a beadwork pattern, or to promote long-term preservation by removing abrasive and acidic dust and debris. The torn lining of a jacket might be mended before it is displayed on a mannequin so that gravity won’t cause it to tear further.
Reversible methods are used, and Becker-Burns documents every action, so that future researchers don’t think that any repairing or cleaning she performs is original to the piece.
On rare days, she might even open a time capsule. She spent one Thursday doing just this. At the provincial legislative building on December 15, 2011, Becker-Burns helped Premier Brad Wall and Lt. Governor Gordon Barnhart open and remove the contents of a time capsule that had been sealed inside a wall since 1909. The capsule was opened so the items inside could be displayed at the start of 2012, the centennial year of the legislative building.
Wearing gloves, Premier Brad Wall and Governor Gordon Barnhart carefully removed a 1909 Henderson’s Directory, a slim Saskatchewan telephone directory and a 1909 Canadian Almanac. Becker-Burns removed the objects very gently, to make sure not to inadvertently tear one of the objects still inside.
“It’s a matter of looking ahead and asking questions such as, ‘Do we have to cut the box open more? Or is it going to be ok?’ Things were packed very tightly inside the box,” she said. “It was quite something that they managed to fit everything in.”
Every day, Becker-Burns knows she performs important work. She said she loves the feeling that her work as a conservator makes a difference. “That you’ve extended the life of an object. That you’ve helped make an object meaningful, that you’ve helped safely put it on display where people can see it and appreciate it.”