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Haines museum reveals centuries-old formline paintings on Lingít bentwood boxes with infrared photos

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The Haines Sheldon Museum is showcasing a display of newly revealed Lingít formline images. The museum staff used an infrared camera to photograph traditional bentwood boxes to reveal paintings, not seen in perhaps 200 years. 

Several traditional Lingít bentwood boxes make up part of the Haines Sheldon Museum’s 23,000 item collection. Handmade out of cedar wood and painted, the boxes were used for storage or traded goods, according to museum collections coordinator Zachary James. 

“These ones I think were probably used for regalia, because they have really nice paintings on them,” James said. “But they were general purpose storage boxes, too.”

James is Lingít, with ancestry in Wrangell and the Stikine Basin as well as the Chilkat Valley. And he has an active interest in Lingít art and heritage, especially new ways of looking at pieces from the museum’s collection. 

“It just basically looks like a black surface on wood, and then these amazing images are able to be pulled out of it.”

Traditional bentwood boxes come in various sizes.large boxes stored blankets, clothing and ceremonial items, like regalia. Medium-sized boxes stored food, and small boxes held berries, toys, sewing materials and special treasures, according to the museum exhibit.

Over time, the outside varnish darkened, probably from soot or grime and storage conditions obscuring the original paintings. Some completely hidden, others you can see a faint outline. 

“And if you look at it from the side, you can kind of see, or under certain light conditions, you can kind of see the design, but you can’t really make it out very clearly,” James said.

Using an infrared lens on a digital camera, James photographed the bentwood boxes, which date back to the 1800s, capturing the striking formline images below. 

“The way it works is infrared light penetrates through the patina or the varnish the yellowed varnish on the outside of the piece. Normal light reflects off of the very outside. The infrared light penetrates through the varnish, and then bounces off the pigment or off of the wood and then reflects back,” James said. “And so it has the ability to see through that  kind of grime on the outside.”

James says he got the idea from the book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations, a project of the University of British Columbia museum. The book features infrared photographs of many different Northwest Coast boxes and formline paintings.

“The designs on bentwood boxes were usually abstract, and that was because things like killer whales, eagles and ravens and frogs and things like that are usually owned by a specific house or clan. So things with those kinds of designs weren’t generally traded amongst other people. So, they would make these abstract designs and that way it was OK to trade amongst different people or use it for basically resale. This was before the adoption of currency or basically  colonial culture or anything like that Western culture with money,” James said.

For James, it was an exciting reveal.

“It’s probably the first time in a couple of 100 years that these designs and these pieces of art have even been able to be appreciated or looked at. So I felt like it was good to see it again.”

Haines Sheldon Museum board president Kelleen Adams says James’ initiative, and the project, is valuable for the Haines community. 

“It’s such a treasure to have these in Haines,” Adams said. “And for Zach to come up with this idea, to bring this artwork to life, to show people what has been beneath that for hundreds of years, it’s amazing. So we are very fortunate to be able to witness this.”

James says the newly revealed designs are significant to the larger project of recovering and protecting the Lingít heritage of the Chilkat Valley, and Southeast Alaska. 

“Constantly, Native art has been taken out of Native hands and put in European or American institutions. I mean, there’s Lingít art from this valley in Russia and Germany and all over, also University of Pennsylvania,” James said.

“We have no idea what’s in private hands, what was lost over the years,” James said “So every scrap of information about the Lingít art forms that we can draw from is important.”

Formline involves a complex and often subtle language of rules and motifs, and so James says the recovered images are important for local Lingít artists to study the artform.

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