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Paula DePriest preserves Mongolian heritage

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AAAS Fellow Paula DePriest is the deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute. (Photo: Carrie Madren)

In a way, Paula DePriest leads a double professional life. For 11 months of the year, the deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland, Md., oversees scientists and professional conservators who study materials and objects in the Smithsonian's extensive collection. But come summer, she jets around the world to a remote reindeer-herding village in northern Mongolia.

It was her expertise as a lichenologist that first drew her to Mongolia in 2002, where she intended to study the lichens that feed reindeer herds. Instead, she found a more pressing project: a rich cultural heritage in danger of fading away.

That 2002 trip was a turning point in her career, she says. "I quickly realized that the loss of cultural heritage and traditional knowledge and lifestyle was going to be happening during the time I could observe the changes in their society," she says. Herders were finding themselves priced out of the modern economy and struggling to earn enough to send their children to school, buy supplemental food, or have a cell phone, among other expenses.

"I knew that this was going to limit their ability to stay as reindeer herders even though they were very connected to that lifestyle," says DePriest, who began traveling with them to their distant and historic pastures to try to understand their culture and document places important to them.

So, summer after summer, DePriest sets off on horseback with her Mongolian translator and an extended family of reindeer herders who serve as her guides. On horseback for 10 to 12 days at a time, the group rides as far as 100 kilometers (roughly 60 miles) from the reindeer camp.

Other researchers and documentary filmmakers have visited the reindeer herders, she says, "but very few of them get outside of the camp," to document places away from the camp. "Most of the people think they've reached the end of Earth when they get to the reindeer camp," she continues, "but we go beyond that."

She publishes what she learns in the Arctic Study Center field reports, and hopes to build up a catalog of GIS data for the Mongolian region — including worship sites, mineral springs, and other places — as part of a larger cultural heritage effort at the Smithsonian to create GIS databases for archaeological and historical sites. Such data would be useful for researchers and other interested people

When DePriest returns to the states every August, she's back at the Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland, Md., where she supervises some 20 scientists and professional conservators and interacts with the different Smithsonian units. Conservators use stable isotopes, elemental analysis, and other methods to study and preserve textiles, historic artwork, specimens, and other objects, as well as creating accurate replicas of objects for display. "We get data that helps fill in the story about an object or specimen," she says.

Researchers also investigate how objects are preserved — for instance, looking at the alcohol used to store specimens and cleaning mold off of tropical plant specimens. Two of DePriest's current projects include looking at museum temperatures and humidity levels and how museum HVAC systems could be turned down or off at night and still keep collections safe. She also is researching methods to remove a brownish-yellowish cyanobacteria algae stain that has developed on the rough-cut stone exterior of the American Indian Museum in downtown D.C.

Before her passion for preserving cultural history took root, lichens captured her full attention. "Lichens are interesting and they seemed to be overlooked," she says. Growing up in the late 1960s and early '70s, she witnessed the nation's growing environmental awareness that included using lichens as indicators of air pollution. "I collected lichens around my home town of Dyer, Tenn., and since the Clean Air Act, there are so many more lichens there now ... [the increase in biomass is] really amazing," she says.

After lichens led her to Mongolia, her annual trips inspired her to take horseback riding lessons at home in the D.C. area. in order to feel comfortable traveling far distances. "Learning to ride was essential for me to do what I want to do in Mongolia," she explains.

In addition to documenting worship sites and other important cultural traditions, her aim is to help Mongolians remain connected to their past. As young people are lured to higher-paying jobs (in the mining industry, for instance), she explains, the time to document traditions and culture is now. In the near future, she says, "I just don't know how realistic it's going to be for anyone to be herding reindeer."