The David T. Vernon Collection: Living History Comes Home To Grand Teton National Park

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Dakota Sioux beaded buckskin dress, c . 1875, with Sioux necklace.

Editor's note: The following story originally appeared in the Grand Teton National Park Foundation's Spring/Summer newsletter and reappears here with their permission. It was written by Kim Mills, the Foundation's manager for Communications, Corporate Relations, and Estate Planning.

Grand Teton National Park, known for craggy peaks, wildlife, and adventure sports, also ranks among the country’s top spots for Native American art and artifacts.

When Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott first arrived in 2004, she was amazed to discover the incredible David T. Vernon Collection, one of the most diverse Indian art collections in the world. Nearly a decade later, painstakingly restored objects and their fascinating stories have been unveiled and are captivating visitors and collectors around the globe. Not only is this priceless gift from Laurance S. Rockefeller quickly becoming a well-preserved representation of social and cultural objects used by tribes across America, much of the collection is also completely new to the public—offering pieces that were stored for half a century and never displayed.

“Objects of art that affect you emotionally and spiritually are not only beautiful, but they also connect you to a living culture,” Scott says, explaining that the 1830-1940 collection features some pieces that can be traced to individuals, which is rare. Experts have long known this collection’s importance due to the breadth of tribes and cultures it represents, but research continues to reveal an unexpected link to the Tetons.

“We know it’s irreplaceable and unique in the National Park Service—that’s what makes it so special. These objects magically carry you back to the time of their creation, and you can’t help but wonder about the person who created an individual item. There’s a real presence and power to each piece.”

Since 1972, a portion of the Vernon Collection has been displayed at the Colter Bay Visitor Center. In recent years, the park has worked to restore and conserve the objects and to ensure they remain in the park as was the intention of Mr. Rockefeller. “When I arrived, I saw a deteriorating collection that had not been treated, preserved, or humidified since 1972,” Scott says.

Despite the park’s efforts to preserve it, more was needed.

With tribal help, the park determined which objects were most vulnerable and sent them to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center, an NPS conservation and curatorial facility in Tucson, Arizona. In fall 2011, the second half of the collection was transported to Arizona, and the following summer, 38 treated items that represent local tribes were returned to a renovated exhibit space at Colter Bay.

In spring 2013, three museum-quality display cases were installed in the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center with funding from Grand Teton National Park Foundation, Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc., and Grand Teton Association to showcase additional treated objects.

The Vernon Collection forms a collective memory of tribes and traditions that are very much alive today and highlights the importance of preserving and sharing our country’s cultural history for all time. A discussion about where to create a permanent museum to house the entire collection is underway along with ongoing consultation with all tribes represented by the pieces. The permanent exhibit will include continued dialog with tribal representatives to assure the stories of the objects and associated tribes are properly displayed and interpreted. It is a next step in the superintendent’s greater mission to give these pieces the environment they require and the respect they deserve. “We hold this collection in public trust to ensure its permanent preservation for future generations.”

Colorful Moccasins, Blankets, and More in Moose

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Eight years, 304 items treated to date, and a total cost of nearly $1 million to treat, photograph, and build specialized mounts for the entire collection, Grand Teton continues to prepare for the day when the full 1,429-object collection returns home. The Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center is the second site to showcase newly restored items in museum-quality cases funded by Grand Teton National Park Foundation, Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc., and Grand Teton Association. The facility will house 48 never-before-seen pieces that demonstrate the collection’s vast scope. Representing approximately 100 tribes, 17 of which are historically affiliated with the Tetons, the collection’s story evolves as new data unfolds.

The NPS Western Archaeological and Conservation Center has been consumed with cleaning, stabilizing, and repairing a wide variety of Vernon items “that are breathtaking as art but also functional and spiritually meaningful,” Scott says. Much like the people and the traditions this collection celebrates, the objects tell important stories that guarantee the tribes’ rich history lives on.