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Springfield Museums unearth ‘buried treasure’

Date: 12/26/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – It’s a moment that any museum curator would want: to realize that an artifact in a collection is something more than what it has been labeled.

For more than a century, a wooden helmet in the collection of the Springfield Museums has been catalogued, as “an Aleutian hat,” while in reality it’s a war helmet of the Tlingit tribe and one of less than 100 such helmets known to exist.

Springfield Museums personnel gathered on Dec. 18 to officially unveil the artifact and announce it will be part of a new exhibit on Northwest Native American life.

Springfield Museums President Holly Smith-Bové said, “When you think of finding treasure, you think of finding treasure in our art museum, not in the basement of the Science Museum.”

Science Museum Director David Stier called the artifact “the find of lifetime.”

Stier explained the discovery took place because of the museum’s development of a new exhibit. He said there are no records of when the helmet was donated or purchased. The only official document connected to the artifact was it cataloging around 1900 by Albertus Lovejoy Dakin, a museum specialist, who accepted the description of “an Aleutian hat.”

Dr. Ellen Savulis, the curator of Anthropology at the Springfield Science Museum, describe what came next as “a fascinating journey.” She noted in he own research that the Aleutian people wore hats that were made out of driftwood and were roughly conical in shape with a visor.

What sat before her was an elaborately carved and painted object that was made from one piece of wood. It features a bird head that represents the family lineage of the wearer. It was carefully painted with much of its color preserved.

Savulis enlisted the assistance of Steve Henrikson, curator of Collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, Alaska, who confirmed the object was a Tlingit war helmet.

According to information Henrikson supplied to the museum, the helmet dates back to the 19th Century or earlier. The style of the carving and decoration on the helmet (probably the emblem of a clan) dates it to the mid-19th century or earlier.

Henrikson said the helmet was part of a traditional wooden body armor and there are about 95 such helmets mostly in museum collections. He added that Russian explorers who clashed with the tribe brought back such artifacts.

Savulis said the Tlingit tradition was that no woman could handle the helmet and out of respect for that only male museum personnel will touch the artifact.

Although Stier called the helmet “priceless,” according to a 2008 Associated Press report a Tlingit war helmet sold at auction for almost $2.2 million to a private collector.

This helmet, though, will be on display in a specially designed cabinet designed for its security and proper archival preservation, Stiers explained. The public will be able to see the helmet beginning on Dec. 26.

“We are truly honored to be the caretaker of this rare artifact,” Savulis said.