120-Year-Old Siberian Parka on Display in Grand Gallery main content.

120-Year-Old Siberian Parka on Display in Grand Gallery

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Yupik parka mounted in display case. The parka on display in the Grand Gallery exhibit Sanightaaq: Yupik Ceremonial Gut Parka is one of 100 coats that underwent restoration by the Museum's Objects Conservation Laboratory. 
C. Chesek/© AMNH

In “The Guts and Glory of Object Conservation,” an episode of the Museum’s video series about collections, conservators and anthropologists discuss preserving century-old cultural materials from the historic Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902), which undertook a groundbreaking study of indigenous cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait. Now, in the Grand Gallery, you can see a striking example of that work—a recently restored coat collected from the Yupik people in 1901.

The coat is a ceremonial gut parka made primarily from the processed intestine of a bearded seal and represents the cultural heritage of a people whose traditions were nearly erased during decades under the Soviet regime. 

The Yupik live along the Bering Strait in Siberia and Alaska and are the majority population on St. Lawrence Island. Historically, Siberian Yupik relied on seals, whales, and walruses for resources.

Yupik woman named Kiruka sits on the ground outdoors and unravels and inflates intestines.
In this 1930 photo on St. Lawrence Island, a Yupik woman named Kiruka unravels and inflates intestines outdoors.
Courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution GA 30-87

Bearded seal intestines can be 65 feet long, and to process them into a wearable material a Yupik woman unravels and inflates the intestines outdoors, then cleans, scrapes, and cuts them. The season in which the guts are processed determine how the parka is used: drying them out in cold winter wind produces “winter gut,” considered sacred for ceremonial use, while drying them during warmer months produces a practical, waterproof material known as “summer gut.”

Click or tap into the window below and use the hand tool to manipulate a three-dimensional model of the restored gut parka.

 

The parka on display was made during a dark, windy Arctic winter and finished with seal fur, reindeer sinew, and crested auklet beaks and feathers. Although Yupik rarely make gut parkas today, some process sea mammal membranes for drums, dolls, and other items.

This parka is one of 100 coats that underwent intensive restoration by the Museum’s Objects Conservation Laboratory as part of the Museum’s Siberian Conservation Project to document, research, and treat the Jesup collections. Native consultation was vital to that work, and Siberian scholars and artisans shared their knowledge and memories to help conservators understand gut parka processing and care.

“The challenge of this project for the student-curators was to distill multiple worlds,” says Laurel Kendall, curator of Asian ethnology at the Museum. “Yupik life at the time the parka was made, Yupik heritage today, and the work of the Museum's conservation lab in consultation with Yupik artisans.”

The Museum’s Jesup collections became especially valued as a cultural repository when the Soviet Union inhibited contact between Yupik communities across the Strait and suppressed traditional language and culture from the 1930s to 1991. Since the borders between Siberia and Alaska reopened in 1991, Siberian Yupik have reinvigorated many cultural, artistic, and language practices, and the Museum remains committed to making the historic Jesup collection accessible to descendant communities in Siberia.

In the episode of the Museum’s video series Shelf Life about object conservation and the Siberian Conservation Project, Vera Solovyeva, a Siberian scholar from the Sakha Republic, who worked with Museum conservators, said the collection—with its range of material, spiritual objects, and photographs of her ancestors in everyday life—showed her “what was truly the ancestral way of living.”

“It’s really important to value again our culture, “Solovyeva said. “I never saw this kind of clothing, for example. I didn’t realize they exist[ed].”

The new exhibit, titled Sanightaaq: Yupik Ceremonial Gut Parka, was produced by a team of Museum staff and students in the Museum Anthropology Master of Arts Program offered jointly by Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History.

 

Sanightaaq: Yupik Ceremonial Gut Parka is on view in the Grand Gallery through September 2, 2019.