Our lovely conservation student Ronja from Berlin has finished her placement with us now and gone home – but not before changing our Inuit kayak model display on her last day:
The kayak models are in a relatively bright location in the gallery so they need to be rested periodically to reduce light damage. We found three models in the store to swap into the display, but they needed a bit of conservation treatment first. One particularly tricky item was the drag anchor from one of the model kayaks. A drag anchor was used by Inuit hunters when catching whales. It was attached to a harpoon and would slow the whale down and tire it out after it had been hit, so that the hunter could follow it and eventually kill it outright. Drag anchors have different designs, but this one is a bit like a tambourine without the jingly bits:
It is made from baleen (the filter strips in a whale’s mouth) coiled into a ring, with a piece of gut stretched over the top to make a drum shape, and stitched in place with sinew. There are also very thin leather strips to make a line to attach to a harpoon. Unfortunately all these materials are very attractive to insects, so part of the baleen has been eaten, making the whole structure very weak. Meanwhile the gut has also split the whole way across and is very fragile, with more splits appearing, and the leather is broken in several places. The damage to the drag anchor makes it difficult to understand how it would have worked in practice, but is also very hard to repair without causing more damage in the long run.
We really wanted to put the drag anchor on display as we don’t have any other version of this type of object in the collection. Ronja came up with a very nifty conservation mounting system that would make it clear how the drag anchor should look, but without putting the fragile original materials under pressure by sticking lots of new materials to them. First she made a patch to cover the hole in the gut skin top. She tested lots of materials to decide what to make the patch from, including sausage skins!:
Eventually she chose a rare Japanese paper called gampi paper. This was very kindly given by Bridget Warrington at the Cambridge Conservation Consortium, where they sometimes use gampi paper to conserve ancient manuscripts. Ronja painted the paper with watercolours to match the original drag anchor. Here is the patch and the leather harpoon line positioned to show how the drag anchor should look:
Instead of sticking the patch to the fragile gut, Ronja made a soft fitted mount to hold it in place just under the original. The mount was made in two sections out of archival foam. A piece in the middle had to be cut out to make room for the delicate leather strips attached inside the drag anchor, and there was a hole in the side of the mount to insert the harpoon line. The cocktail sticks in the picture are there to help line the parts up correctly:
Ronja also repaired the baleen ring to strengthen it, using more Japanese paper, this time a kozo paper. Here you can see the white paper repair before Ronja painted it to match the rest of the object:
Now the models were ready to install. Each kayak has a fitted metal cradle that screws into a brushed steel post in the display, and the model sits on top:
Once the kayak itself was in position, Ronja placed the drag anchor on the back and arranged the harpoon line. Then she arranged all the other accessories belonging to that model:
We are very pleased with the new kayak display – many thanks to Ronja and we wish her all the best!