From the Smithsonian to the city museum

Curator Ellen Carrlee has worked on archaeological digs in Turkey and art conservation in the Bronx

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

Hand-carved halibut hooks and rusty mining artifacts have replaced the ancient Lydian pottery, African headdresses and oceanic bark cloth that Ellen Carrlee worked with before moving to Juneau.

Carrlee, 28, is the new curator of collections and exhibits at the JuneauDouglas City Museum. She's traded the sophisticated art conservation laboratories at museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Peabody Museum for a more humble facility. However the move has come with some significant perks.

She's actually able to live with her husband, Scott Carrlee, who is also a professional conservator working a few blocks from her at the Alaska State Museum. The two married last August while Ellen was living in Washington, D.C. She moved to Juneau in October when she was selected for the newly created curator position at the city museum, which is funded this year through cruise ship passenger fees.

"We're able to do so much because Ellen's here," said city museum curator Mary Pat Wyatt. "It's exciting to see so many good things happening."

This time last year, Ellen Carrlee was Ellen Roblee. She and her husband Scott combined their names when they married, blending his last name, Carroll, with her former surname to create a new name which they both took.

Their wedding was somewhat unconventional as well.

"We totally eloped," she said. "We got married at Skater's Cabin. We didn't tell anyone."

The two initially struck up a friendship several years ago in New York when both were working at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian in the Bronx. At the time, Ellen was spending summers in Sart, Turkey, at an archaeological excavation and Scott was preparing to relocate to Juneau. He arrived in Alaska in August 2000 and she went from New York to Turkey to Washington, D.C.

Last year they met again at a museum-conservation conference and rekindled their friendship. He invited her to come to Juneau for a visit in August, and when she returned to D.C. she was a newlywed.

Carrlee grew up in Sheboygan, Wis., which she described as the home of bratwurst, Kohler Plumbing and some very fine lake perch. She earned her undergraduate degree in art history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and her master's degrees in art history and art conservation at New York University.

Carrlee spent three summers working on an archaeological excavation in western Turkey, the site of the capital of the ancient Lydian empire. The legendary King Midas was Lydian.

"The Lydians were outrageously rich," Carrlee said.

Persians conquered the Lydians and Lydian artifacts lay beneath layers documenting occupation by Persians, Greeks and Romans. The site is now home to a small Turkish farming village.

"My job was to put the pots back together and clean them up, and clean up the coins so you could see who's head was on there," she said. "The numismatists, or coin experts, could recognize the ruler and could date the coins and then you could date everything else."

Pottery designs and artwork also offer clues to dates and culture. Carrlee sat in the museum's collections processing room and described one style known as guiloche, then rolled up her sleeve to illustrate it, revealing a tattoo designed in traditional East Greek style. The pattern of interlacing bands circles her bicep over a trio of animals - a fox, a wild goat and a rabbit.

Museum conservation work combines art history, studio art and chemistry, Carrlee said. She specialized in ethnographic and archaeological objects, a large field which encompasses organic objects such as baskets and textiles, and inorganic objects such as ceramics, metalwork and sculpture.

Wyatt said Carrlee is responsible for the objects in the museum, their storage, acquisition, care and exhibition. That includes fine art, ephemera such as documents and paper items, textiles, mining artifacts, the museum's small natural history collection and large historical collection.

"She brought a really high level of professionalism with her," Wyatt said. "She knows what should be done and she's very practical."

Carrlee has been documenting the museum's collection, working on new exhibits, and also has been able to enlist volunteers to help catalogue and process historical items donated to the museum.

She also has been getting acquainted with Southeast Alaska.

Two weeks ago she and her husband went clamming at night with headlamps, trudging through the mud at low tide in their brand new Xtra Tuffs. Friends have loaned them skis, a kayak and outdoor gear to help introduce them to the Alaska outdoors.

"We've been so lucky, Scott and I, the community has been so friendly and welcoming," she said.

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