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Yukon 'heritage therapist' provides care for treasures

The walls of Valery Monahan's Marwell lab are lined with shelves filled with boxes containing the territory's historical treasures.

The walls of Valery Monahan’s Marwell lab are lined with shelves filled with boxes containing the territory’s historical treasures.

At one end of the room is a large fume hood; the room is permeated with the faint scent of a hundred years of decay and strange chemicals.

Monahan is the Yukon’s territorial conservator.

She leans over the table and examines the array of surgical instruments in front of her.

They are part of a surgical kit that belonged to Constable Edward Telford, a Mountie who served in the Yukon a century ago.

Beside the surgical kit are displayed some rusty items from an archeological site that was excavated near Tagish last summer by archeologist Victoria Castillo. There is also a small doll dressed in a miniature rabbit-skin parka belonging to the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation of Dawson City.

The medical instruments came to her covered in rust and gore. Now they look clean and respectable; they were cleaned with cotton swabs saturated with isopropanol. While she removed much of the corrosion and the organic residue, she didn’t over-clean the objects. One of the rules of conservation is to minimize the treatment you subject an artifact to.

As the territorial conservator, she applies her skills to repairing and restoring some of the Yukon’s greatest historical treasures. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; think of her as a heritage therapist, and you are closer to understanding what she does.

Working closely with her client institutions, she will provide advice on a number of options for treatment of an object before she gets the green light to proceed.

While she has been trained to treat items such as these, she is quick to point out preventive care is much more important than fixing things up. In fact, artifacts stored, handled and displayed properly will seldom need her restorative skill.

She explains that context is important. If you treat an object for water damage then return it to a shelf where the roof is leaking, then you are wasting your time. It’s better to get to the root, or roof, of the problem.

Monahan should know; she has been highly trained to become a conservator. After earning a degree in anthropology in Halifax, she was steered toward conservation, and applied for a master’s degree from the conservation program at Queen’s University. Applicants have to have diverse education and practical experience that includes a knowledge of chemistry.

Monahan also served in various internships, including one for Parks Canada in Dawson City, where she worked on artifacts from Dredge Number 4 National Historic Site.

She served as the conservator for the Provincial Museum of New Brunswick for three and a half years before becoming a victim of downsizing. A stint as archeological consultant was followed by three and a half years working on artifacts at the Fortress of Louisbourg, another national historic site, before she was hired by the Yukon government in 2000.

Conservators are trained in the particular techniques for cleaning and repairing valuable objects from collections. They help those who look after collections by providing advice on handling, storage and display. They also conduct analysis and research to help identify, and interpret objects in museum collections, and determine their age,

In addition to restoring artifacts, Monahan travels around the territory helping out community museums and First Nation heritage centres, providing advice and assistance where they are needed. Whether it is to aid with spring cleaning, deal with pests, or work on exhibits, she’s there to help.

Her enthusiasm for her work is infectious.

She explains that the Yukon has a special environment for artifacts. As the territory is below freezing for half the year, artifacts here aren’t affected by mould, insect or chemical processes the way they are in southern climates.

Yukon summers are relatively dry, so rust and mould aren’t the problem that they are in coastal British Columbia, for instance, where moss grows on anything that doesn’t move.

The permafrost also provides a unique environment in which items that are hundreds, and even thousands of years old, can survive with little damage. Materials like hide, feathers, pigments and even old adhesives are preserved.

I asked what goes through her mind when she encounters an artifact made of organic material that is 9,000 years old. Be very careful, she said, and handle the object as little as possible. These things are both fragile and unique.

It’s what happens after things are removed from nature’s icebox that dictates the condition in which she’ll find them.

One of the big challenges to working in the Yukon is the distance. Monahan frequently gives advice on packing objects for transportation. Crates have to be specially designed to accommodate the special needs of significant objects that are included in travelling exhibits.

Even packing things for transportation to Whitehorse has to be carefully considered. Fortunately, she often works with contractors who have specific skills and experience in building crates for holding items securely and safely in transit.

If you can deal with the basic problems, she tells me, the chances for survival of our material heritage are pretty good.

Monahan pointed out three factors that are vital to the well being of historical objects and works of art: a good envelope, good storage, and a good plan.

If things are stored in a building that is secured from the elements and the roof doesn’t leak, the odds in favour of the artifact improve dramatically.

Good storage is the second ingredient for preventive care. All too often, she points out, objects get stored in ways that are bad for them. Overcrowding is a problem, and if things get moved in and out of crowded shelves and carried along narrow aisles, she says, the damage from them bumping into things will accumulate.

Finally, she tells me that having a good plan is important. When collections get moved, they are subjected to all kinds of risks, so if there is a long-term plan for a collection, then every time something has to be done to the collection, it can be an opportunity to improve the conditions for care.

You are only as good as your staff, she warns me. If you have good policies, and procedures that everyone knows, and the staff are trained in how to handle artifacts properly, and work efficiently, then you reduce the number of times that the artifacts have to be handled and moved.

You balance the physical well-being of an object that is in storage while at the same time planning for how it can be used.

Valery Monahan dedicates herself to protecting collections from the biggest pests of all: people. With a good serving of her heritage therapy, they become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.