Tip of the iceberg: Inside the secret vaults of the Nevada State Museum | NevadaAppeal.com

Tip of the iceberg: Inside the secret vaults of the Nevada State Museum

PETER THOMPSON

Eugene M. Hattori, Ph.D, curator of anthropology for the Nevada State Museum, displays one of more than 1,200 American Indian baskets in the downstairs vault at the museum. Peter Thompson/ Nevada Appeal

The security guard steps down a dimly lit flight of concrete stairs into the permanent shadows. He moves past several warning signs and comes to a waist-high metal riot gate, which he promptly unlocks.

Slowly he’s descending into the gray basement of the Nevada State Museum, passing corridor after corridor of dead-bolted doors and cryptically marked cabinets.

The grim drone of fluorescent lighting buzzes from a bright room ahead.

What could possibly be down here among the lost? The imagination grasps at the fantastic. A Lake Tahoe sea monster in a jar of formaldehyde? Grisly utensils left over from the Donner Party?

Inside the bright room, all is answered. Well, some of it, anyhow.

A group of cheery locals sit in folding chairs in front of a display table. They are looking at American Indian baskets, arrowheads and glassware.

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Indians have lived in this part of Nevada for more than 10,000 years, explains museum collections manager Alanah Woody.

Which means the museum has more artifacts than it knows what to do with.

It turns out that museums are a bit like icebergs – the bulk of the matter stays below viewing level, by sheer necessity.

“The vast majority of the collections will never be seen by the general public,” Woody explains. “There’s just too much of it and not enough room upstairs. The cream of the crop goes into the exhibits, and the rest gets stored down here.”

On the last Friday of every month, the Nevada State Museum allows small groups of visitors into the silent depths of the building for a closer look at some of the unseen treasures.

Inside one of the hundreds of cabinets crowded into the room is a collection of Polynesian artifacts left to the museum by a local collector.

“Beautiful stuff,” says Woody, “but it has nothing to do with Nevada.”

“We started doing these behind-the-scene tours a couple of years ago as a tie-in to Archaeology Awareness Week,” she said. “We couldn’t believe the number of people who showed up, so we kept on doing it.”

It’s a new direction the museum is consciously pushing toward, she adds, trying to make a wider variety of materials available to the public.

Among the collection being warehoused is a priceless assemblage of more than 1,200 hand-woven baskets on shelves behind a 3-inch metal bank vault door. And with good reason – one of the baskets was just loaned to a museum in Arizona, says curator of anthropology Gene Hattori.

“We had to get it appraised for insurance purposes,” he said, holding up a similar basket with his cotton-gloved hands. “It came back worth around $600,000.”

Among the most prized pieces of the collection is a group of baskets made by the famous Washoe weaver Dat So La Lee, a servant who created masterpieces for a Carson City businessman named Abe Cohen.

“Many of her baskets sold for thousands of dollars way back in the early 1900s,” Hattori said. “You can imagine now they are truly priceless.”

IF YOU GO

For information or to reserve a spot on the next behind-the-scenes tour, contact the Nevada State Museum at 687-4810.

Contact reporter Peter Thompson at pthompson@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1215.