HELENA – Last week, the Montana Historical Society welcomed an ‘objects conservator’ to Helena to work on two teepees held in its collection.

Objects Conservator Nancy Fonicello is using her expertise to help conserve a Cree-style teepee donated to the Montana Historical Society.

“The idea is to flatten it out slowly, gently, so that we don’t do any damage when we roll it (back) up,” said Fonicello as she explained how the teepee was rolled out to begin her work.

Dating back to the mid to late 1800’s, the teepee is one of few still in existence in the U.S.

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“To have eight full sized bison hides represents a time period that is now gone,” said Fonicello.  “People were actually living in this thing and using it.  There’s patches, there’s smoke.  It was actually a living, breathing object that was used by people.”

Fonicello’s work is not to restore the piece.  She said its fragility means it will never again be placed upright or in its natural position. 

Her work will help to conserve the teepee so it can be saved for years to come and viewed for research.

“You don’t want to make any changes that are permanently changing the object.  For instance, I won’t cut anything, I won’t sew anything, I won’t make any permanent changes.  If I use any adhesive it’s completely reversible.  That’s the idea of conservation is to preserve,” explains Fonicello.”

And it’s not the only teepee she’s working on.

Fonicello also worked on a toy teepee, which dates back to the early 1900’s and is also in the Cree-style. It is in good enough condition to be placed in its original position.

Before Fonicello’s efforts the colors and intricacies of the decoration were unseen.  They are now clear and can be investigated.

“After the conservation work was done and we can clearly see all of the drawings that were put on and different colors and brands on the horses, it’ll be great for us to do a little bit of research now to see what more we can find out about the teepee,” said Amanda Trum, Curator of Collections for the historical society.

Trum said conservation efforts are another, lesser known aspect of how the Montana Historical Society preserves history for the people.

“People know about the fact that we exhibit a lot of artifacts and we tell their stories,” said Trum, “But at the same time we need to make sure that we’re caring for them.  And part of care is having them conserved by a professional when they need that.”

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