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Sweetgrass basket gets dramatic makeover at museum

Once treated, the basket can again stand on its own, despite having a slight tilt because of its size. (Photo Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)
In a 1969 article, a Naples newspaper shows the elderly Deaconess displaying a piece of patchwork and proudly sitting next to sweetgrass baskets. (Photo Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Collections Manager

BIG CYPRESS — Earlier this year a thoughtful donor in Naples gifted the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum with a historic sweetgrass basket that was in need of much love and care. The donor’s mother, Katie Johnson, bought the large basket from the Deaconess Harriet Bedell in Everglades City during the 1950s. The Deaconess was a famous local missionary who spent most of her career working to get Seminole and Miccosukee artwork the recognition it deserved. Johnson and the Deaconess were friends when she purchased the basket, and it remained with the Johnson family until it was donated to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. An Associated Press newspaper article from 1969 shows the basket next to the Deaconess, as she displays a piece of patchwork.

The basket brought with it much history. The Deaconess did not make it herself, but she helped to sell it for the Seminole or Miccosukee artisans she represented. Unfortunately, by 2021, age had taken its toll and resulted in a basket that was structurally unstable. The neck and lip of the basket, comprising the top third, was completely separated for more than three-quarters of the circumference; the area was collapsing into itself. This meant that as soon as the basket was examined at the museum, it was immediately treated so that the rest of the basket wouldn’t have any further issues.

A two-prong approach seemed best, and can be easily thought of like a double row of surgeon’s stitches, but in reverse. First, the exterior of the separation was treated using more traditional basketry techniques that employ high tensile thread. Second, the interior was stabilized with a high-fiber, low-pulp paper and organic adhesive that would act as structural reinforcement for the separated area. This also spread the physical integrity to areas immediately surrounding the separation, decreasing the likelihood of further structural issues in that area.

A museum conservator performs delicate operations such as this one as part of a daily routine, but this should not make us dismiss such work as easy or straightforward. Conservation is an experimental science and every “patient” needs a different type of operation. But the miracles performed are no accident, they are the result of years of specialized training and hands on experience. The priceless pieces of art that the museum cares for can only be preserved for the future with the attention of a conservator.

If you would like to see how a conservator helps slow the effect of time on historic objects like this basket, stop by the museum or contact Robin Croskery Howard at (863) 902-1113, ext. 12220.

The damage to the basket was extreme but was caused merely by the weight of the layers of sweetgrass. (Photo Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)