Around the World in 80 Models: Alaska

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Hop on board as we continue our journey Around the World in 80 Models! We began our itinerary at Sketchfab headquarters in New York and are working our way through Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America, and North America. To catch up on past destinations, check out the rest of the Around the World in 80 Models series.

This week we’re in Anchorage, Alaska, where researchers Medeia Csoba DeHaas and Alexandra Taitt take us inside the Alaska Heritage Museum to show us how they create models of Alaskan cultural items.

Anchorage, Alaska: Grass Basket with Lid

Our names are Medeia Csoba DeHass and Alexandra Taitt. Medeia is an assistant professor of anthropology and Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage, while Alex is a program specialist at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Alex created the grass basket with lid model for her MA project on the role of 3D heritage preservation of Indigenous museum collections. Alex’s work contributed to Medeia’s larger project on digital reparation of Arctic Indigenous collections to origin communities using digital 3D models.

For this project, we have been partnering with the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo located in Anchorage, Alaska. The original, physical grass basket is part of their collection, and the Director & Curator of the Museum, Tom Bennett, has been a fantastic partner in making collection pieces available to us for 3D modelling. We also partnered with the Social Science Program of Kawerak Inc, which is the regional non-profit Alaska Native Corporation for the Bering Strait region of Alaska. In Alaska, the great majority of Alaska Native communities have their own village corporation and also belong to a larger regional corporation that were created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. Julie Raymond Yakoubian, the Director of Kawerak Inc.’s Social Science Program has also been a dedicated partner in making our 3D models known in the communities of the Bering Strait region. You can listen to Julie’s take on the Grass Basket model by clicking on the YouTube link we included in the annotation on the model.

The goal of the ongoing partnership with Kawerak Inc. and the Alaska Heritage Museum is to address questions that relate to the colonial history of Arctic Indigenous collections at memory institutions, namely, the fact that cultural items have been systematically removed from origin communities. For this reason, collections are often located around the world, and even if origin and descendant communities learn about the existence of these culturally significant pieces, only a few people can afford to visit them. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that regulates the return of specific items to federally recognized tribes does not apply internationally. Additionally, there are very few tribal museums in Alaska, and when items are repatriated to communities, they are often stored permanently in regional hubs or in Anchorage. Due to the vast distances within Alaska that can be in excess of 2,000 miles, the expense of travelling to a hub or Anchorage can be a limiting factor to many people. So even if physical repatriation fulfills the legal requirements under NAGPRA, these heritage items often do not make a full return to their origin and descendant communities. For this reason, we are using 3D technology to assist communities in creating a local presence that people can intellectually and emotionally engage with.

We are using multiple Nikon DSLR cameras for photography, and running our models through Agisoft Photoscan. As this is a pilot project that is designed to gauge the possibilities of working with museum pieces on location, and not in a controlled lab environment, we take each piece as a new challenge. Ethnographic collections are different from most archaeological collections as they contain organic, soft material that can be difficult to model. Arctic ethnographic collections are particularly challenging as the pieces are often a composite of shiny ivory or baleen, soft feathers and fur, or pliable leather and gut.

Figure 1. Medeia Csoba DeHass takes photos of an Inuit or Iñupiaq ivory carving called Tupilak at the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo. Polished ivory and baleen are challenging to 3D model due to the reflections off of the surface.

At the beginning of the project, we experimented with 3D scanning, but it soon became apparent that photogrammetry can produce sharper, more detailed, and more clear models. As a result, now we use Agisoft exclusively while also experimenting with a variety of masking options to find the best match for each collection piece. Sometimes, we need to re-do or update a model based on what we have learned from working with different materials, shapes, and items. This grass basket is the second model Alex created, as the first one was darker and less sharp. We decided to leave both models up on Sketchfab for the purposes of comparing quality and to demonstrate the need for ongoing refinement of techniques used.

This grass basket uses a coiled technique that is prevalent in the Yup’ik and Yupik communities. While Iñupiaq weavers also made grass baskets, this particular type of basket weaving became especially popular in Yup’ik and Yupik communities of Western Alaska in the 19th century. As it is often the case with Alaska Native collections at memory intuitions, we know very little of the artist who made the basket, and even the origin community. We do know, however, that local Elders and weavers would be able to identify the region the basket came from, and even maybe the family whose member made the basket, based on the quality of the grass, the weaving technique, and the pattern woven into the sides and the lid.

Figure 3. Julie Raymond Yakoubian, the Director of Kawerak Inc.’s Social Science Program selects an ice scoop from the collection of the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo to be 3D modeled for the use of origin communities.

This is where we see our work: without community input, the basket is just another collection piece, a beautifully made one of course, but still, rather unknown. When we make 3D models available to local communities we open an avenue for sharing information and reuniting with a culturally significant item that was made by an ancestor. Using 3D technology to digitally reunite communities with their heritage is an ongoing project that develops rapidly due to innovations in technology and results from specific collaborations. It brings together origin and descendant community members, researchers, and museum professionals in repatriating some visual aspect, knowledge, and the cultural context of material heritage. It also contributes to decolonizing collection practices, as items no longer need to be physically removed from communities for documentation. We, as researchers, think in terms of collection pieces, but local people have their own understanding of what should be 3D modeled and what cultural heritage is.

To see more of Medeia and Alexandra’s models here on Sketchfab, check out their profile!

About the author

Abby & Néstor

Abby and Néstor are Sketchfab Masters.
Abby Crawford, Ph.D. is trained in and passionate about Roman Archaeology and works as a freelance artifact illustrator and 3D scanner in California.
Néstor F. Marqués is a virtual Heritage & cultural diffusion researcher, and an enthusiast of ancient Rome’s culture.

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