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Nation's top conservators help county history museum in northern Minnesota
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About a dozen of the nation's leading historic conservators spend a day working on preservation projects at the Clearwater County Historical Society Museum in Shevlin. The northern Minnesota museum was chosen as the site of this year's Angels Project, an outreach effort by the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
About 700 art and history conservators from around the world are in Minneapolis this week for the 33rd annual meeting of the American Institute for Historic and Artistic Works. Earlier this week, about a dozen members of the institute traveled to the Clearwater County Historical Museum in northern Minnesota. The visit was part of a volunteer program called the Angels Project. The idea is to share the expertise of some of the nation's top conservators with smaller institutions that otherwise couldn't afford it.

Shevlin, Minn. — The Clearwater County Historical Society Museum is in an old schoolhouse in the little town of Shevlin. The museum was bustling with activity Monday, when conservators from some of the nation's leading cultural institutions came to give a free assessment of the museum's collection and provide help with preservation. The group included experts from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the J. Paul Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Tamara Edevold is director of the Clearwater County Historical Society. Edevold says the museum operates on a shoestring budget. She says the one-day visit from so many experts is a little intimidating, but much appreciated.

"They know how to handle the artifacts," said Edevold. "If we had volunteers come, it'd be a little scarier to have them handling some of the more fragile things. So, I mean these people know exactly what to do, so ... this is great. This is really great."

The Angels Project started about 15 years ago as part of the annual meeting of the American Institute for Historic and Artistic Works. The goal is to promote the importance of cultural preservation.

Volunteers this week helped build some new storage shelves for the Clearwater County museum. They moved some of the textile and document collections to acid free containers, where they'll be better preserved. The group also worked on historic documents brought to the museum from the tribal archives of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

Susan Martin is a book and paper conservator from the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City. Martin worked with a stack of faded White Earth land allotment records that date from around 1904 to the mid-1930s. Rusted paper clasps have left brown stains on the paper.

"They're just in a total state of disarray and disrepair," said Martin. "I'm just putting them in order of sorting out these by dates, 1931, 1932, trying to do minimal cleaning and at least putting them in acid free folders. That's our main objective, to make them safe so they can be used and people can make some sense out of them."

White Earth Tribal Archivist Andy Favorite says the volunteer conservators were a big help.

"By helping me do this, (they) will save me about five years work," said Favorite.

Favorite says organizing and preserving the documents is important because there are still lots of legal disagreements over those old land transactions. He says some tribal members got ripped off by scrupulous buyers.

"It's almost like doing a forensic problem-solving 100 years later of the immoral, unethical land shenanigans that went on by the politicians, the corporations, the banks and lumber companies," he said.

Organizers of the Angels Project say their one-day visit to Clearwater County shows there's a need to fund museums and preservation efforts. Minnesota Historical Society conservator Bob Herskovitz says historical preservation these days, from the county level on up, is typically underfunded.

"Between the economy and sort of the shift in focus after 911, things have become much more difficult for the cultural community," said Herskovitz. "I mean, there just isn't as much money available. We'll have to figure out how to do more with less, as they say."

The annual conference of the American Institute for Historic and Artistic Works runs through Sunday in Minneapolis.

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