Conservation staff member Betsy Burr prepares the basket exhibit at the Arizona State Museum. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
Conservation staff member Betsy Burr prepares the basket exhibit at the Arizona State Museum. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Permanent Museum Exhibit Weaves Together Past and Present

"Woven Through Time" showcases 300-plus pieces from the Arizona State Museum's collection of more than 35,000 American Indian baskets and fiber art items.
April 5, 2017

A pair of woven yucca sandals, worn centuries ago. Small animal figurines, crafted from twigs in 2000-1000 B.C. Intricate, colorful baskets of all shapes and sizes — some thousands of years old, others made in the last decade.

These are among the items on display in the Arizona State Museum's new permanent exhibit, "Woven Through Time: American Treasures of Native Basketry and Fiber Art," which opens Saturday.

The exhibit showcases 300-plus pieces from the museum's collection of more than 35,000 American Indian baskets and fiber art items. The collection spans 8,000 years and is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.

Diane Dittemore, associate curator of ethnology at the Arizona State Museum, hopes visitors to the museum will come away from the basket exhibit with a new appreciation for the basketry tradition and its enduring importance in tribal communities.

"Arizona is home to some of the best basket weavers that are alive and working today," Dittemore said. "These are people who are proudly holding onto the tradition and feel that they have to keep on weaving because it is something that's so important to them culturally."

The exhibit is presented in a style similar to the museum's other permanent fixture, the "Pottery Project" exhibit, which opened in 2007 and showcases pieces from the museum's collection on Southwest Indian pottery — the largest in the world.

Like the pottery exhibit, the basket exhibit includes a large, windowed display wall, which lets visitors see past the prominently showcased pieces in the nine windows and into the climate-controlled vault behind the glass, where thousands more items are organized and stored in cabinets and compact shelving.

Construction of the basket vault was funded, in part, by the federal government's Save America's Treasures initiative, which awarded the museum a grant to improve its basket storage and conservation efforts.

The Arizona State Museum's extensive collection of woven items includes everything from whole, fully intact baskets to small bits of cord, all of which require careful handling by museum conservators because of their delicate nature. Some items were found at archaeological sites, while others were donated. The pieces represent several different cultures in the Southwest and across North America, including Yavapai, Hopi, Tohono O'odham, Pima, Navajo, Pueblo, Yaqui and Apache.

"One thing that's cool about basketry is that everybody has baskets in their house. Basketry is something people still use, and people can very much relate to it," Dittemore said. "To be able to witness thousands of years of continuity and change in basketry and see baskets that are a thousand years old that look almost the same as ones you can buy today, it gives a sense of deep time and of the depth of Native culture in our region."

The museum will celebrate the exhibit's grand opening on Saturday with free admission from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. A number of native weavers will be on site to demonstrate and sell their art, and answer visitors' questions.

"People can have one-on-one conversations with weavers," Dittemore said, "and hear from them how important basketry still is to their home communities and to them personally."