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The Ethnographic Gutskin project is the working title of a collaboration to better understand the internal organs of mammals used by indigenous people to make artifacts.  The project is initiated by museum conservators who seek to understand the material in order to better preserve the artifacts under their care.    Experts from many fields, including artists, hunters, curators, scholars,  research scientists, and marine mammalogists have pieces of this puzzle.  The weblog is intended to be a forum to help us share and discuss these clues as they are gathered. Some of the purposes of the project are as follows:

  1. Materials identification for museum gutskin artifacts, with a primary goal of determining proper treatment and preservation protocols, but with secondary benefit for scholarly interests.  Develop an identification protocol for gutskin material that can be readily used by conservators to determine which organ is being used on an artifact, and possibly identify the genus or species.  Comparison of functionality in the animal to functionality on the artifact will be explored.  The physical properties that influence this functionality may also allow conservators to predict how various treatments may affect the material.
  2. Provide basis to evaluate current and past treatment protocols and preservation standards.  Identify potentially harmful treatments or storage/exhibition conditions.  Propose new standards and protocols.  Inform correct disaster response, especially wet gutskin.
  3. Build interdisciplinary connections and identify points of common interest between conservators, Native cultures, marine biologists, social scientists, and other interested parties. 
  4. Promote recognition and appreciation of Native science from new perspectives.  Enhance understanding of ethnographic use of artifacts.  Recognize Native expertise and compensate appropriately, ie. professional recognition, financial compensation, co-authors on publications etc.
  5. Develop a reference set of Native-processed gut materials to be housed at one or more museums for future research.  Collecting marine mammal parts is illegal without a permit. 


While many different organs and animals are used by circumpolar indigenous cultures, including for example the Aleut, Alutiiq, Inuit,  Iñupiaq, Sami, and Yup’ik cultures, this project will begin with a focus on Alaskan cultures.   The range of inner organs used is likewise incredibly varied, so intial focus will mainly be on the organs of the gastrointestinal tract, as these are the ones most commonly used to manufacture artifacts:  esophagus, stomach, large intestine, and small intestine.  We are also beginning with a focus on pinniped marine mammals found in Alaska.    These species are:

Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus)

Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus)

Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)

Ribbon Seal (Phoca fasciata)

Ringed Seal (Phoca hispidia)

Spotted Seal (Phoca largha)

Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus)


2 Responses

  1. Thank you Ellen for creating a forum in which we can share our information on gutskin! No doubt this blog will lead to cooperative study, which will greatly advance knowledge of this material and lead to greater care of these amazing collections. Looking forward to many posts and many interesting developments.

  2. Ellen, this is so well done and so needed! Thank you for doing this – I look forward to sharing info and images.

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