reflections on changes in museums and the conservation of collections from indigenous peoples

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  • Maney Publishing

    Reflections on Changes in Museums and the Conservation of Collections from IndigenousPeoplesAuthor(s): Miriam ClavirSource: Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 1996),pp. 99-107Published by: Maney Publishing on behalf of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic &Artistic WorksStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 04:02

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    ABSTRACT-Museums housing collections from

    indigenous peoples are changing their role and direction vis-a-vis the communities that originated their collections. Such changes mean new ways of

    working in museums and new demands placed on the collections. The author analyzes why these new directions represent challenges to conservation

    ethics, practice, and values and situates these chal-

    lenges in the context of current realities in museum

    practice. The author concludes that the challenges have influenced the role and outlook of ethnograph- ic conservators as well as their views on what is sig- nificant to preserve, who is involved in preservation, and how it is done.

    RESUME-Les musees qui abritent des collections

    d'objets des peuples indigenes sont en train de

    changer leur r6le et de modifier leur approche vis-a- vis des communautes d'oil ces collections

    proviennent. Ces changements impliquent de nouvelles fagons de travailler et de nouvelles

    exigences '

    l'encontre de ces collections. L'auteur

    analyse dans un premier temps les raisons pour lesquelles ces nouvelles orientations constituent un reel defi envers la deontologie, la pratique et les valeurs de la conservation. Il les situe ensuite dans le contexte de la pratique actuelle des musees. Pour

    terminer, il conclut que ces defis ont influence le

    r6le et la perspective des restaurateurs d'objets ethnographiques ainsi que leurs jugements sur ce

    qu'il est important de pr6server, sur les personnes qui s'en occupent et sur la manibre dont elles le font.

    RESUMEN-Los museos que alojan colecciones de

    pueblos indigenas estan cambiando su papel y direcci6n en relacion a las comunidades que

    originaron sus colecciones. Estos cambios significan nuevas maneras de trabajar en museos y nuevas

    exigencias puestas en las colecciones. La autora analiza orque estas nuevas direcciones representan retos a la etica, prictica y valores de la conservaci6n. Estos retos son luego situados en el contexto de las realidades prevalecientes en la practica de los museos. La autora concluye que estos retos han influido en el

    papel y perspectiva de los conservadores

    etnogrificos, asi como tambien en sus puntos de vista acerca de lo que es significativo preservar, quienes son las personas involucradas en esto y c6mo se hace esto.


    In countries such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, the museum con- text in which ethnographic conservators work has been undergoing a substantial change. Museums that house collections from indige- nous communities geographically related to the museum are particularly affected.1 These

    museums, which are the focus of this article, are moving away from the presentation of material culture to become places that present living cultures. A major part of this change involves facilitating self-representation by the

    peoples who originated the collections housed in the museum.

    Anthropology museums have always, for bet- ter or for worse, been involved in preserving and exhibiting culture. What is radically new is that First Nations are sharing at least some of the power the museum structure has tradition-

    ally held. Admittedly, this movement is more

    JAIC 35(1996):99-107

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    common in relation to finite projects such as exhibitions or repatriation requests than in relation to museum operations as a whole.

    Indigenous peoples are, however, working with and within the museum system to participate in decisions and, increasingly, to have control over how their culture is represented in the museum's work. In addition, First Nations are

    slowly but increasingly filling the professional staff positions of museums, both at dedicated institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian and at older major insti- tutions throughout North America, and espe- cially in New Zealand. More and more, muse- um visitors today are experiencing the voices of living people belonging to an indigenous culture, not just voices from the past or from the academic knowledge of nonindigenous curators.

    For a growing number of anthropology museums located in the same country (or province, state, or territory) as the indigenous peoples who created the collections, the tradi- tional cultural triangle of "museums, objects, and collections" (Pearce 1992, 1) has been

    opened up to include the originators of the

    objects (Ames 1992). At the same time, new

    ways of working are being instituted in muse-

    ums, and new demands are being placed on the collections. For example, consulting or negoti- ating with representatives of the originating community or seeking the advice of an adviso-

    ry board or group of elders has become part of

    arriving at museum decisions. Cultural

    requests regarding the collection include repa- triation; borrowing objects for ceremonies;

    making storage and display rooms culturally sensitive; conducting rituals in museums and

    treating sacred/sensitive materials in an appro- priate manner; and having increased hands-on access to the collections. Underlying the

    changes in museums are the fundamental issues

    of aboriginal rights and First Nations owner-

    ship and control of what is or was theirs, issues that are currently being re-examined in the courts and in public opinion in many countries.

    These new directions in certain museums have affected the conservation function within the museums. Some of these changes could be seen to challenge the fundamentals of conser-

    vation, which developed and continues to mature within traditional museology. This arti- cle focuses primarily on the challenges for

    ethnographic conservators when cultural con- cerns are seen to be given precedence over the

    physical preservation of the collections in the museums where they work.



    Conservation has developed into a distinct pro- fessional field whose area of expertise is the

    physical preservation of material culture. One characteristic of professionalization is that the

    practitioners commonly believe that their com- mitment is to their work and the clients they serve through it; they hold this commitment even though they might change employers. Some conservators see objects as their funda- mental clients: "Our loyalty is not owed to our

    institutions, organizations, or colleagues, but rather to the unique and irreplaceable objects that embody our history, culture and aspira- tions" (Merrill 1990, 170). Even if the clients of conservation are seen as being people-for example, the public or future generations- conservators view their role as preserving objects for these people. Similarly, a traditional museum is "constituted by its collections"

    (Pearce 1992, 2). For museums, therefore, the

    concept of facilitating the preservation of

    indigenous cultures through supporting their

    living expression rather than through preserv- ing their material culture represents a profound conceptual change. Some conservators may experience this change as museum collections are being subjected to physical risk in order to serve people today.

    These new directions in museums represent other challenges to conventional conservation.

    Underlying the specifics, they challenge:

    JAIC 35(1996):99-107

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    1. The methods and scien