About us...

ACCI flows from the knowledge that Cree culture must be captured, maintained, shared, celebrated, and practiced. Cree Elders have spoken of the need for a central place for the protection of the way, and have developed a vision for Aanischaaukamikw over several decades.

Oct 19, 2020

Working Remotely as a Museum Collections Registrar

 by Melanie Banks

With the closure of many public spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March 2020, family and friends have assumed that as a heritage worker I would have been laid off. This has been a frequent conversation starter when I am inevitably asked how I am spending my time during the pandemic. When I correct them with the information that I have continued working fulltime, I am usually greeted with bewilderment and the follow-up question “how does a museum employee work from home?”. This has been a strange opportunity to better explain to family and friends what my day-to-day work routine looks like at Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute [ACCI] as the Collections Registrar and how I have taken my work home.

Without a doubt, the pandemic has interrupted the way we work and manage our collections at ACCI. We have used this opportunity to refocus our efforts on areas of our job that are suitable to the realities of working during COVID-19. When our facility was closed in mid-March some of the staff chose to leave Oujé-Bougoumou to be with family; for myself and a colleague, we packed up the objects we were working on, returned them to storage and secured the museum for lockdown.

Our ‘work from home’ plans were tailored for each staff member, depending on their normal areas of work. Luckily, we all work on a central server, which we were able to access remotely. This meant that while we were not able to physically access the objects we care for, we were able to access all of the information and photographs about the object, enabling us to proceed with the data entry and documentation areas of our work. In particular, I was able to use my time to enhance our online object catalogue records – most museums have an ever-present backlog of less pressing items like catalogue updates that are put aside when more pressing concerns (usually public facing projects, like exhibitions work) take priority. 

The primary engagement a museum registrar has with the museum collection is through database entry and maintenance, especially acquisitions and inventory controls.

Image 1:  Our most recent rehousing project, building mounts for our snowshoe collection to utilize vertical storage space.

In a nut shell, a registrar is typically in charge of keeping a detailed record of all the artefacts/objects entering and leaving the museum, and digitally inputting their record and information into the museum collections database systems (which may include paper records as well as digital and electronic). This includes managing loaned exhibits and objects, acquisitions, and insurance. I was able to transition into remote working easily, being able to give more attention to the database side of my role, putting aside the hands-on work for the time being. Expanding on the detail of my work during self-isolation gives me an opportunity to explain the process through which we have worked to process and clear our acquisitions database backlog.

Before any object comes into the museum collections at ACCI, our Acquisitions Committee assesses and approves the object and its relevance to the museum based on the criteria in our Acquisitions Policy. If an object is approved as an acquisition, we notify the source and arrange for the transportation to ACCI. When it arrives on site, it is assigned a temporary Object Entry number on a form which also records the object’s provenance, dates and any additional information the source has about the object(s). We obtain transfer signatures from the source, thereby officially handing the object ownership over to ACCI. Concurrent to this process, when the object comes into the building it is sealed in a bag and placed in a special quarantine area for a period of time, under the supervision of our Conservator, to contain any potential infestations and protect the rest of our collections.

Image 2: A new object passing through quarantine before being processed into the collection. 

After the object is removed from quarantine the object is assigned a permanent number in the museum collection. I then enter the object into the database and do a basic catalogue record for the object. The Conservator creates a record of the object’s condition to measure any deteriorations over time, in the interest of preserving the object. The object is photographed, labelled with its new permanent number, and a paper record of the object is created.

Image 3:  A recent snowshoe acquisition, in the process of being accessioned into our permanent collection. 

The record usually includes the date the object was made, the maker’s name and information, a description of the object, measurements, description of use, provenance, and other details. A selection of this information is used for the online record for public consumption and all of it contributes to our role of maintaining the object into the future. After the process is completed the object is securely stored in climate-controlled storage units or put on display. I can happily report that despite the pandemic, I was able to clear a backlog of entries of new acquisitions into our collections database. Reaching this milestone comes as a great achievement for our team as we refreshed the content for our online database, making what is available online current.

While it comes as a great achievement to reach this goal, transitioning from working with a small tight-knit group to working from home and interacting with the people I used to see every day over video chat comes with its struggles. I think that most people could agree with me, that in the early days of the pandemic, all emails sent and received had a slight undertone of panic and confusion, often ending or starting the email with, ‘hope you are staying safe during these crazy times’. It came as a reassurance that everyone was feeling the same way but did not help the anxieties we were all feeling. Team video chats always had at least one person who could not log in or unmute their computer (usually me or our conservator). And then there were the ever-present tech issues that we faced while logging into our physical work computers via our laptops at home. I spent a solid two weeks asking my co-worker, who was keeping an eye on the building, to restart my computer every morning for 2 weeks, before the issue suddenly magically stopped one week. We also had to have our emergency planning/health and safety teams meet remotely and start drafting new policies that we never thought we would have to write: Re-opening and Closing Procedures in the event of a Pandemic. In preparing to go back into the building we decided to include the entire staff in the new pandemic cleaning roles we have added to our procedures.

As I write this blog near ‘normal’ operations have resumed at ACCI, and we begin to welcome visitors from the immediate community back in, in tightly controlled, pre-booked groups. Now that we are back in the building, we are once again able to work on the hands-on projects, while our database is currently up to date. Though, that is not to say that our database is complete: there will always be small corrections and updates to make as new collections are received, records to improve and expand with new research information for our existing collections. But for now, we are left with more time to concentrate on new acquisitions, working on long term projects, perfecting the small things and rotating exhibits to welcome visitors back fully in the future. Our permanent exhibit will be undergoing some refurbishment in the next 12 months, as we prepare for our 10-year anniversary celebrations in autumn 2021.

Aug 4, 2020

Reflections on Painted Caribou Hide Workshops

by Margaret Orr

In the months of January, February, and March 2020, I embarked on a journey to Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Eastmain, Chisasibi, and Whapmagoostui in Eeyou Istchee (Quebec). My journey was to facilitate workshops that focused on the designs painted on caribou hide coats and other items of clothing and other belongings. Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) in Ouje-Bougoumou offered me the position to do the workshops based on my contemporary art practice, extensive cultural knowledge from my experiences living on the land, and because I had led research workshops for the same project in summer 2019. I accepted the position and it was an honour to be able to contribute to the reawakening of this art form related to my ancestors.

I was busy working on my degree show ’10,000 Drowned’ for my Master’s Degree in Fine Arts at the University of Regina at the end of 2019. I didn’t have much time to plan out my workshop before travelling to Ouje Bougoumou in January 2020. I quickly jotted down ideas on how I would deliver the workshops. I had already began preparing in August 2019 by exploring painting with ink on small pieces of caribou skin, canvas and paper. I liked the way it looked and began to get excited to teach the process to people at home in Eeyou Istchee.

Painting on caribou hide using pigments made from minerals found in nature was done for ceremonial purposes and also to beautify an object. When the  Europeans came to trade and introduced glass beads and embroidery thread, painting on caribou skin began to fade away, and many of the designs migrated to floral designs. Whereas before, the designs were very geometric, with a lot of straight and curvy lines. From what I can see, it seems the designs were inspired by the landscape, animals, plants, migration, and the sky in our region. The work of my ancestors was both highly detailed or very minimal. It seems it depended on the artists and the materials available to create with, which would obviously vary from season to season and year to year as we traveled through our territory. From the stories I read and heard, clothing, ceremonial hides and other items were painted so the animals can see them and being pleased with what they saw, would come towards the hunters to offer themselves to sustain us. This is how it was, every care was taken to be respectful to the animals, and with the painted caribou-skin coats. Even though we have no historic examples today I am sure that moose hide was also painted, with extra special care taken to honour them, as they are a big animal and can feed many people.

When I was facilitating the workshops, I had some resources with pictures and texts to use for discussion and for people to look through. The main book they looked at that has a lot of pictures of designs made by our ancestors are found in the book, “To Please the Caribou: Painted Caribou-Skin Coats worn by the Naskapi, Montagnais, and Cree Hunters of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula,” by Dorothy Burnham, who was a Conservator at the Royal Ontario Museum in the late 20th century. For us, we found the photographs useful, but the text itself had a great deal of conjecture or opinions that are presented as fact, when there are many things that we will never know, or that we as Eeyou people have a completely different understanding of because of the depth of understanding our own culture, when compared to assumptions made by outsiders. On that note, we have a project report that is forthcoming in an upcoming edition of KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination and Preservation Studies.

In my workshops and artistic practice inspired by the painted caribou belongings, I focused on where the inspirations for the designs come from and the reasons for them. I also talked about what I discovered from what I could understand based upon my own experiences living in Eeyou Istchee. I had watched my mother, grandmother and other women in Fort George[1] / Chisasibi, the community where I grew up, sew designs on clothing like mittens and moccasins. I noticed there was a lot of similarities between their design elements and the ancient designs of our ancestors. I was also drawing and painting similar designs when I was experimenting with art materials. I know that the natural environment of the Chisasibi territory where I grew up also influenced my work. I also think that the ability to create traditional designs comes from blood memory, from our DNA, our genetic makeup. We all inherit certain traits of our ancestors through our DNA. One of those traits is artistic creativity.

For the workshops we used ink and acrylic paint, paint brushes, calligraphy pens and goose feather quills. The surfaces used to paint on were paper, canvas, and leather. ACCI supplied two small caribou hides that had been fixed white, and the art supplies. This link takes you to the catalogue record for a painted hide created at the workshops in Summer 2019 – 2020.07.01 by Margaret and other Eeyou artists. The whole project has been funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, in their ‘Creating,Knowing and Sharing : The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples’ funding stream. The printed resources I got from the ACCI library. The photographs featured in this blog are of finished works made by participants, except for Whapmagoostui where students didn’t have time to finish what they started but they did continue on after I left.


Ouje-Bougoumou was the first community to hold a workshop. It took place in the Skills Workshop at Aanischaaukamikw (ACCI). During the workshops, participants explored working with the paint pigments and painting and drawing tools, gaining confidence in their creativity and enjoying the environment they were working in. The outcome of the workshop produced some nice work.

This is a small purse made by Trifona Simard. She decided to paint on canvas, as she wanted to explore her talent before committing to painting on caribou-skin. Before she painted on the canvas, she practiced painting designs on paper until she gained confidence in handling the paint and the tools.

This is a small purse made by Trifona Simard. She decided to paint on canvas, as she wanted to explore her talent before committing to painting on caribou-skin. Before she painted on the canvas, she practiced painting designs on paper until she gained confidence in handling the paint and the tools. 

Minnie Coonishish made this laptop cover for herself. She used ink on some hide that she supplied herself and sewed it together by sewing machine. She started it at ACCI and finished it in Mistissini where she is living.

Mistissini was the next stop on my journey. With the assistance of Jane Voyageur, the cultural coordinator, I set up the workshop in the Neoskweskau Sports Complex. There happened to be a general assembly going on at the same time, so I had quite a few visitors watching the participants as they worked. There were different age groups who participated, including two children.

This little bag was made for a little girl’s walking out ceremony. Her mother, Bethany Blacksmith, painted on moose hide and caribou skin.

Jane Voyageur, who likes to hunt and fish, made herself this gun case. She painted on canvas using ink and the top is covered with caribou hide and a strip of bias tape.

Beth Sealhunter Longchap made this bag for her husband when he goes hunting. She did not change the way her piece of leather was cut from the caribou hide and craftily used its form to create the bag after painting on the leather with ink. We can see the floral and geometric designs she made. 

Eastmain was my third stop. We had the workshop in the Cultural Centre beside the school. Some people made designs while some people visited. One young girl came after school to paint on paper.  On the last day of the workshop, we had a feast of moose, fish, and ptarmigan.

This three foot long banner was painted on canvas by three sisters: Florrie Mayappo, Ena Weapenicappo, and Kathleen Whiskeychan. I helped a bit. We made it to hang on their tent door. The design is an old one found in the book, “To Please the Caribou.” It was nice to sit around the table and paint together.

Chisasibi is the place I come from and it was nice to be back there. We had the workshop in the Parish Hall. Some midwives who were training and working in Chisasibi also participated. Two children also came and very quickly picked up the concept of the designs and painted some on paper. Two men came to make something, one a small banner and the other painted on his hunting coat.

This small bag was made by one of the older midwives, and I unfortunately don’t remember her name. She used ink to paint on caribou hide. She said this was here first time working with leather. She did practice painting on paper first.

After the workshop in the Parish Hall was done, I went to the Cultural Camp to look for people who were not able to come to the workshop. I was in luck, I found two people, Janie and Charlie Pepabano, who were waiting for their stretched raw caribou hide to freeze so they could scrape it. I showed them designs from the written texts and the projects I was working on. They tried painting on paper and small pieces of caribou hide until it was time for them to scrape the frozen caribou hide. 

Janie and Charlie Pepabano were at the Cultural Camp and were very interested in trying out the inks. They tried painting on paper and caribou hide. They found the hide absorbed the ink very well. It would have been nice to spend more time with them as they shared some knowledge and stories about caribou and the past while we were sitting around the table – this is when stories and our traditional knowledge typically get passed on, in the kitchen, or while doing activities on the land. 

Whapmagoostui, the only fly in community in Eeyou Istchee, is one place I hadn’t been to since 1977. I was surprised how much the place grew in size and population. The workshop was at Badabin Eeyou School  with the secondary level students in the Cree Culture/Language classroom. The teacher of the classroom was Louisa George, who had also attended the research workshops in Summer 2019. She had some pictures of traditional Cree subject matter that I used to show the students how the ancient designs could be related to things in the pictures. While working, the students often asked Louisa for the correct way to say words in Cree that related to what they were learning about the caribou, the land, the language, etc. I found out that the students are able to write whole essays in Cree.  Every time they came in the classroom, they were eager and started to work right away. But, because of the schedule of secondary school, students did not have the time to finish their projects in one week but they planned to complete them after I left.

Most Badabin Eeyou School students chose to first draw their designs on paper and then transfer them onto canvas. Some students expressed their choice to make their designs on canvas until they feel confident enough to be able to make them on caribou hide. They liked to use their names in their designs.

We had planned to do one final workshop at the hotel in Montreal where Cree patients and their families stay when they are there for health care than cannot be provided in the region. Unfortunately this was around the same time as the pandemic lock down starting in mid March, so we have had to postpone this workshop. It was at this point that I returned to Ouje Bougoumou, where I sheltered during the lockdown. During that time, I explored the area around Ouje and found minerals and other organic materials for my pigment experiments I wrote about in my previous blog, Making Paint Pigments.

My Samples

When I teach art, I like to show participants sample of my work so they have a general idea of what a work in progress and finished work looks like. This is to help them generate their own ideas.

Below are samples of things I made for the painted caribou hide workshops.

These are two different painted canvas gun cases. I used ink to paint with and both sides of the gun cases have the same design. One is sewn together with a sewing machine and the other is sewn by hand. One of these is now in the collections of Aanischaaukamikw – 2020.06.01

This is a completed painted caribou-skin bag. I used ink to paint with. I gifted this to the Whapmagoostui cultural coordinator, Joe Einish, who participated in the summer 2019 research workshops and now works as the Cultural Coordinator. Joe is Naskapi and his mother made painted caribou coats in the past, one of which they think was purchased by a museum but we have not been able to locate it yet. 

This is a work in progress sample of a painted canvas bag that has yet to be sewn together. I used ink to paint with.

After the workshops were completed, I made these children’s mittens out of moose hide, and used ink to paint with. The white trim and fringes are caribou hide. These mittens are now in the collections of Aanischaaukamikw – 2020.06.02 ab

For more about Margaret’s art, please see this article in Nation magazine.

[1] Fort George was relocated in the 1980s to the current location of Chisasibi because of fears of flooding from a hydro electric dam.


Jun 19, 2020

Making Paint Pigments

By Margaret Orr

It’s been a real pleasure working on the Painted Caribou-Skin Coats Project with the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Ouje-Bougoumou, Quebec.

Margaret looking at painted coats with our research group at the Royal Ontario Museum.

After a trip to see ancient painted caribou-skin items in the Royal Ontario Museum in August, 2019, I wondered what it would be like to make my own paint from ingredients I gather from the natural environment in Eeyou Istchee. As soon as the snow started to melt this spring of 2020, I began to gather some of the ingredients. In this article, I share the process I went through during the beginning of my experimenting with making my own paint pigments.

Dye from Black Spruce Tree Cones

The Black Spruce tree cones of Eeyou Istchee make a brilliant brown dye. The cones grow in clusters and are found at the top of the tree. It was early April when I picked the cones, while they have a dark purple green and brown hue, before opening to drop their seeds. When I was a young woman, my mother pointed at them in the late fall and said, ‘A long time ago they used to boil them to make a dye to color their fishnets’. In the fall the cones are more purple.

This picture is an example of what the spruce cone dye looks like on plain paper. I made small marks on small pieces of caribou skin to experiment and the leather received the dye/ink very well. I did not try to mix balsam fir sap/resin with the dye. I did mix some dye with egg yolk and it went onto the paper very well. This is the first experimenting I did. 

Balsam Fir Tree Sap/Resin

Balsam fir sap, also known as resin, doesn’t freeze in the bark during the winter. Therefore it is easy to harvest all year, but it is most plentiful during the spring. The sap should be clear light yellow. If it is white yellow, do not use it as it could be a sign that the tree is fighting a sickness. When the sap is collected, keep a cover on it and it should stay runny for quite a while. One species of coniferous tree has bark similar to balsam, but the needles are different. 

After poking a hole in the blister, I put my container (not included in this picture) right against the bark and under the blister to catch the sap. When collecting sap, it is important to remember not to use all the blisters on the tree, as sap is good for the tree. Always thank the tree for the sap you are harvesting.

Paints Using Balsam Fir and Oil

This ochre is the color of sienna. I found the ochre at a rock quarry near Ouje-Bougoumou in  April. Using a spoon, I scraped the ochre and it turned into a fine powder. There are no sand particles in this ochre. When liquid was added to the ochre, it turned into a darker sienna.

This is a 1 3⁄4 inch in diameter piece of white tanned caribou skin. In this piece I used ground ochre for a pigment and mixed it into balsam tree sap and canola oil to make my paint. At the edge of the skin I used the black spruce cone dye I made earlier to paint a border. I found that the oil mixed with the sap carried the pigment right into the skin. The sap helped to make the pigment stick to the skin. I am sure this paint is water resistant  but I have not tested this yet.

These are the ingredients I used to make the painting on watercolor paper below. I left out the canola oil because there is oil in the egg yolk. I used a chicken egg for this because I do not have access to fish eggs for now. Water mixes well with egg yolk, but not so well with grease. The water is good to thin the color, but I didn’t need to use a lot of water as the balsam fir and the egg yolk are liquid enough. The darker I want the brown, the less egg yolk I use. 

The brown lines are painted using ochre, sap and oil. I find this mixture soaks right into the watercolor paper and the pigment adheres very well to the paper due to the sap. These brown lines I painted on before I discovered I might not have to use oil when I use egg yolks.
The lighter brown has egg yolk mixed with sap and a little bit of water. I added the water to help the paint go into the paper. The light yellow in the triangles is egg yolk and water, with very little sap and no ochre. The thin yellow lines are just egg yolk and water, with no ochre.

After receiving a gift of a whole goose during the 2020 hunting season, I kept the gall bladder to use as green paint. When I was a teenager I noticed that goose gall stained clothing a dark green and made a mental note that it would be a good paint. Now, here is my first example of using goose gall for green. I also found some raw umber while walking around Ouje-Bougoumou. It was easy to grind so I brought it home and mixed it with sap and goose grease. It worked very well as a pigment. I didn’t try it with egg yet. Over the summer hopefully I will have some fresh fish eggs to work with, instead of the store-bought chicken egg. I look forward to when I will experiment with all pigments on caribou skin. 

These are the tools and ingredients that I used to make my paints.

I feel very excited by this experiment. I will occasionally continue experimenting with other pigments that are available throughout the year with the goal to make a small painted caribou-skin item – watch this space for updates on my progress.

May 4, 2020

Pandemic Isolating: What I’m doing with the 'Reesa' my time

Jessica MacLean, the conservator at Aanischaaukamikw, shares some information about how we keep our collections safe and free from insect damage.

On a bright spring day in April 2020, 1120 km from Ouje-Bougoumou amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself sitting at my kitchen table in Toronto doing watercolour sketches. The subject of which are the bane of my professional existence - Reesa vespulae

‘Adult Reesa vespulae’, a portrait in watercolour by Jessica MacLean, 2020.
In the Linnean classification system that is used by Entomologists, Reesa is a monotypic genus of beetles in the family Dermerstidae, meaning the only species in the genus are Reesa vespulae. Adults are 2.5–4 mm long, with elongated oval bodies. The hardened forewings of these beetles, the elytra, are brown and have a yellowish-brown stripe. The small larvae have a hairy appearance, leading to their colloquial name of “woolly-bears” in museum literature (not to be confused with caterpillars of the same name). Sometimes referred to as ‘stored grain beetles’ or ‘wasp nest dermestid’, I will be referring this beetle as ‘R. vespulae’ in this article.

Aanischaaukamikw exterior. Photograph: Mitch Linet.
In my non-pandemic life, I am the conservator at Aanischauukamikw Cree Cultural Institute and the R. vespulae is my least favourite museum guest. I have spent the last two years meticulously researching, identifying, monitoring, and admittedly stressing about a small population of beetles that are trying to make their home in our beautiful facility. R. vespulae are a common pest of insect collections, and well known to many conservators and collections managers. Having worked primarily with Indigenous collections in Canada, this was the first time I had encountered the species. When they were first discovered in our building, I was admittedly stumped; these beetles were simply too small to fit the description of any of the usual suspects. As I was unable to properly identify the species at first, I looked at the similarities in appearance and diet to other dermestids and made an educated guess that these beetles were part of that family. This guess was supported by the fact that I was able to trap them in baited dermestid lures. R. vespulae are simultaneously my least favourite part of my job and probably one of the most interesting parts of my job.

However, in this darkest timeline we are currently living, I am more than a 12-hour drive south of Ouje-Bougoumou, and there is nothing I can do about the Integrated Pest Management plan I employ to keep these unwanted visitors away.

Dermestidae are a family of beetles commonly referred to as skin beetles and includes a variety of species that are commonly found in museums such as hide, larder, and cigarette beetles, all of whom are identified as pests. I think the title of ‘pest’ that we use in museum preventative care is a bit of a misnomer, like the word ‘weed’. ‘Weeds’ are a social construct; I’m sure you have heard the phrase “a weed is a plant in the wrong place.” I think of the R. vespulae in similar terms. These beetles are neither good nor bad, they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All organisms, including insects, have their place within an ecosystem; all of these Nations are our relations. To assign a negative value to a living thing because it is not wanted by humans is to disregard the natural order of things and the value we should place on our interrelations with all things, human, non-human and beyond-human. That said, as a conservator, my job is to make sure the collections do not become damaged, in this case – eaten. So, in this instance, these insects are considered predatory threats. 

Dermestidae, R. vespulae among them, are scavengers, meaning they feed on whatever desiccated animal and plant material they can find. Luckily for us, R. vespulae are partial to the carcasses of other insects, which means they are possibly helping to keep the populations of other, more destructive museum pests down.  With a little distance from the tunnel vision caused by the constant stress of work, I have come to realize that the R. vespulae are not, in actuality, all that bothersome. They are actually the least of my worries with the Cultural Institute closed at the moment. I am far more worried about my colleagues catching COVID-19, floods, leaks, power cuts, and any number of the other emergency situations that hover in the back of my mind. Luckily, our Facilities Manager and maintenance staff are still close by and check the building daily. There are other staff still in Ouje-Bougoumou who can help out in case any of these admittedly unlikely events occur.

As a conservator, I am always planning for the worst possible scenario and strategizing how to minimize any possible risks to our collections. That is part of what this job is about; knowing how to make a plan for when things fall apart (physically and/or metaphorically). I am always trying to think 2 steps ahead of a number of possible disastrous scenarios, which means I suggest strict guidelines for any plans that involve, or could impact, our collections.  My colleagues in the field might be able to relate to the self-conscious feeling I have when trying to communicate the value of following conservation centered ‘rules’ in order to ensure the collections we care for can be enjoyed into the future.  

At Aanischaaukamikw our focus is on Eeyouch / Eenouch culture, so the majority of our collections are made from materials sourced from the land. When belongings made of hides, furs, and feathers come into the building, they are placed in clear resealable plastic bags as part of our quarantine procedure before they can enter areas where the rest of the collections are stored. The museum recieves donations and loans such as moccasins that someone has just finished making, hides that have been fixed out at someone’s camp, or objects that have been sitting in someone’s living room for decades before coming into our collection. We are not making any judgements about the use or condition of these belongings when we quarantine them; we simply have to do this so we can make sure our other collections remain safe. With the widespread social distancing and isolating we are all engaging in due to the pandemic, I think now is a good time to cultivate an understanding about why we perform this essential part of our entry procedure.

In our quarantine area, I place the belongings inside a resealable bag; gently removing as much air from the bag as possible without crushing the object; then I let it sit in this designated quarantine room for two weeks or more weeks. This allows me to check if any insects have hitched a ride into the building. Some insects will die in the oxygen depleted environment, others will crawl out into the bag making them easier to spot, but a thorough examination will be undertaken before anything is moved into spaces where collections are stored. I closely inspect furs and hides when they come into the building, including materials that come in to be used for workshops and craft activities. Dermestids like to graze along the skin and clip the base of the hairs as they eat; they can do a lot of damage right under your nose if you don’t catch them in time. Once a pest population takes hold in the building, it is difficult to stop them from consuming the rest of the organic collections. If we do see signs of any pests, including droppings (frass) or skin casings from a previous infestation, we will freeze that item and make sure everything is dead before bringing it to the conservation lab for cleaning.

Larvae found on bandolier bag

In one such case, we found evidence of pests in a pair of bandolier bags that came in on loan to us. In quarantine, our previous conservator Fiona noticed that there were some live larval stage insects of a type that are sometimes found inside the rotting matter of antlers in this region. The lender was surprised when notified of this infestation as he lives in a large urban area, and does not have any rotting animal parts in or around his home. With further discussion, it was determined that the bandolier bags had been transported in a duffle bag that was stored for a few days in a closet at a lodge in a hunting community prior to coming to Aanischaaukamikw. It is entirely possible the larvae had come from this closet, perhaps a previous guest had left hunting gear or boots in the same space and this is how the larvae managed to find their way to the precious beaded bags he brought to us on loan. These are the realities of life given our location in the non-urban, heavily forested Eeyou Istchee territory.

Evidence of pest grazing, tamarack decoy

Larger dense objects can be harder to inspect for pests. A few years ago a large tamarack decoy on a log stand came in on loan. The standard quarantine procedures were followed before placing the tamarack bird decoy on display with the rest of our tamarack collection. A short time later, small dark spots were noticed under the decoy. The floors of our display cases are purposely painted white for this exact reason; it is easy to spot something that doesn’t belong. The tamarack was removed and re-inspected in the quarantine area, where it was determined that the freezing time needed to be increased to reach the dense insides of this large decoy. It was frozen for a longer-than-usual period, re-inspected, and placed back on display once it was determined that the pests were, in fact, dead. The case was closely monitored for renewed signs of pest activity; however, nothing has been found since.

Tamarack decoy on log, on display at Aanischaaukamikw

Aside from looking for pests in quarantine, we have pest traps placed throughout the building. Next time you visit a museum, see if you can spot these traps. Sticky traps are placed in inconspicuous locations around the building. The purpose of a trap is not necessarily to exterminate the pests, but rather to collect a sample of the pests in each area in order to identify those that are particularly dangerous to the collections and monitor their numbers. The first day of the month is ‘Bug Day’ for me at work. With my logging sheets, I go around picking up last month’s traps; counting the numbers and types of pests; and placing a new trap. Traps are placed where the wall meets the floor, with the opening parallel to the wall, as pests have limited vision and crawl using the seam as a guide. I add the new data to an on-going graph of pest populations over time. Currently, our maintenance staff has taken over the task while I am working outside the community and seem less enthusiastic than I am about this essential task – maybe this blog will make checking the pest traps more exciting! I admit, it is tedious and creepy-crawly work, but the information collected is vital to the safety of our collections, and an important aspect of good collections stewardship.

Other ways we try to reduce pests inside the facility include:

·         annual spraying of the perimeter of the building. This spraying is usually done in May, when it is the optimal time in the insect life cycle to reduce their numbers.
·         All staff, building tenants, and visitors remove dirty footwear when they enter. Limiting the amount of dirt and water tracked into the building helps to make the building less hospitable for pests; they thrive in dark, moist, dirty places. Staff and building tenants are encouraged to have indoor footwear to wear when they are inside the building – added benefit, everyone gets to show off the beautiful moccasins they wear at work.
·         Food and drinks are only permitted in designated spaces, where
garbage receptacles are emptied on a daily basis.

Red Zone - No food or drink is allowed in rooms in the Red zone.

When I first found R. vespulae, it took me some time to correctly identify them. They were not any of the usual museum pests I had studied. Though I had found the R. vespulae larvae, ‘woolly-bears’, in sticky traps in non-collections areas of the building for months, I could not locate an infestation of adults, meaning the large centralized population of the insects was undetected. I found approximately 1 adult to every 10 larvae. To add to the stress of not knowing what these beetles were, and therefore unable to make a plan to deal with them, the ‘woolly-bears’ shed so rapidly that I realized individuals stuck to the edge of a pest trap were not necessarily dead. They could, in fact, free themselves by shedding their casing. These 'Houdini' larvae were entirely new to me.

'Larvae & casing Reesa vespulae’, a portrait in watercolour by Jessica MacLean, 2020.

Luckily, we have an amazing environmental non-profit organisation in our region called FaunENord. They ensure the sustainable development of the Nord-du-Québec by offering consulting services and developing projects in the areas of integrated land use planning, to consider the needs of environment, education and ecotourism. One of their biologists was able to identify these larvae as R. vespulae and offered some helpful advice. They had a small infestation in their larger entomological specimen collection a few years back. The R. vespulae apparently preferred to eat their moths and butterflies, but had also sampled some of their dragonflies, larger beetles, and bumblebees. FaunENord pointed me towards an article on the diet and habits of R. vespulae.  

In researching these pests, I found that while R. vespulae are not an ideal pest to host in our facility, there may be some benefit to having them instead of other species of dermestids. One article from the Natural History Museum of Dublin described a similarly difficult situation where the local infestation of these beetles acted as a possibly beneficial factor in helping to bring a secondary infestation of moths under control. It has been observed, in some species of dermestids the beetles have been known to attack live moth larvae. It is now my intention to breed R. vespulae (outside of the museum), in a controlled environment, to observe their eating habits by tempting their palates with several of the other common museum pests we have located, namely psocid and springtails, to test this theory (to the abject horror of our registrar and other staff who find my intrigue pretty creepy).

The R. vespulae are common pest of entomological collections due to their ability to eat their way through them like a buffet lunch, and as such are well known to many collections managers and conservators. This was my first encounter with the species in a collection of Indigenous belongings which is why it took me some time to positively identify them. I suspected that these beetles were part of the dermestid family because of similarities in appearance and diet, but they just seemed way too small to be the ones usually found in museums. Our non-urban location and sub-arctic climate means that we often deal with situations that are different to typical museum conservation experiences. Finding insects that are less common elsewhere is one example of our unique situation and demonstrates the type of scenarios I have had to think about in tailoring an Integrated Pest Management plan that will be effective for our needs in Eeyou Istchee.
I have included my sketches of the adult R. vespulae, and larvae with a casing. Feel free to print them off and colour them in. If you do, make sure to share a photograph of your creation in the comments on our Facebook page Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute@CreeCulture on twitter
or Instagram - aanischaaukamikw.

Click links  to download pdf to colour: Adult R. vespulae Larvae and casing, R. vespulae