Reflections on Changes in Museums and the Conservation of Collections from Indigenous Peoples

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    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

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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:

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    1. The methods and scientific conclusions of conservation as being the guiding practice of a museum. For example, in the Ameri- can Southwest, culturally sensitive storage can mean allowing fresh air and natural

    light to reach certain objects. In a major museum in New Zealand, Maori staff place fresh green leaves on objects and display cases for cultural reasons pertaining to remembrance.

    2. The ethics of conservation. Is it ethical for a conservation professional adhering to his or her country's code of ethics to agree to

    put objects at physical risk in order to facil- itate the preservation of conceptual integri- ty or cultural significance? For example, at the University of British Columbia Muse- um of Anthropology conservation staff help formulate the agreement procedures for the loan of appropriate masks and blankets for ceremonial use. It is understood that facili-

    tating the loan is the highest priority, even

    though lending these objects may involve the risk of damage through wear, handling, and poor transportation and environmental conditions.

    3. The authority of conservators as specialists in the storage, handling, and physical care of the museum's holdings. First Nations cul- tural authorities increasingly are shaping opinions about these matters. In fact, chal-

    lenges in this area are one aspect of chal-

    lenges to the authority of the museum as a whole.

    4. The way many conservators work. Conser- vators in North America, unlike those in New Zealand, typically do not begin a conservation treatment by implementing the appropriate protocols and consulting the originating peoples, even for sacred or sensitive objects.

    These four issues affect conservators' daily practice, but even more important, they affect the conceptual framework for conservation.

    Requests from First Nations, and the develop-

    ment of museums as loci serving their commu- nities or the originating peoples of their collec-

    tions, challenge traditional concepts of what a museum is. These concepts also underlie basic

    assumptions in conservation, such as the worth of preserving objects at a distance from their

    cultures; the worth of preserving objects as

    physical entities rather than as cultural entities; the importance and perhaps the parameters of the attributes that constitute the integrity of the object; and the validity of science as the

    preemptive way to seek answers about housing, caring for, and in some cases treating collec- tions. In other words, the challenges to muse- ums test the underlying paradigms of conserva- tion knowledge, which are "deeply imbedded in the socialization of adherents and practition- ers. They tell us what is important, legitimate, and reasonable, and tell the practitioner what to do" (Patton 1990, 41).

    The following questions further illustrate the conflicts in values that exist in some museums





    An object's significance can rest in its whole

    conceptual framework, not just in its physical being. This concept is exemplified by the phi- losophy of Mabel McKay, a Pomo basket maker who "cannot separate a discussion about the material aspects of her basketry from a discus- sion about Dreams, doctoring, prophecy, and the ancient basket-weaving rules, since for Mabel these things cannot be talked about or understood separately" (Sarris 1993, 51).



    Museums usually define the "unique charac- ter and significance"(AIC 1995, 23) of an

    object according to the meaning researched by curators for that object and its place in the

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    museum system of values (rarity, condition, attribution, authenticity, etc.). The postmodern "living" museum may attempt to give priority to the originating culture's system of values

    (e.g., following cultural protocols for sacred or sensitive objects). It follows that in these muse-

    ums, cultural needs to use an object and cultur-

    ally appropriate maintenance of an object may take precedence over standard museum conser- vation procedures. Should non-Pomo conser- vators respect cultural significance by adjusting their normal way of working knowing that Mabel McKay would look after her baskets in the following manner: "She told me how to feed the baskets with water once a month, and she told me how to pray, what songs to sing" (Sarris 1993, 61)? Would such practice in any case be achievable or culturally appropriate?

    It should be noted that the conservator here is involved in a complex situation that includes-in addition to what is usually a multinational collection and constraints of

    time, budget, and distance-further dichoto- mous elements. The museum needs to consult

    proactively on museum work concerned with First Nations, but at the same time the ques- tion of First Nations needs and initiatives, not

    just museum agendas, drives relevant projects. In addition, the baskets do not appear to be in the category most emphasized in discussions of cultural significance-sacred or sensitive

    objects-but they do appear to have important ritual considerations. Whether the conservator arrives at her decision based on practical or on theoretical considerations, her decision and

    process will also reflect how she has balanced

    preserving "conceptual integrity"-the Pomo cultural values she has heard about-with con-

    serving physical integrity-a fundamental con- servation value her training has prepared her for.



    The Canadian code of ethics for conserva- tors states: "All actions of the conservator must be governed by a respect for the integrity of the property, including physical, historical, con-

    ceptual, and aesthetic considerations" (IIC-CG and CAPC 1989, 5).The 1981 Guidance for Conservation Practice published by the United

    Kingdom Institute for Conservation states, "Conservation is the means by which the true nature of an object is preserved" (UKIC 1981,

    1). In a scientific mode of thinking, integrity represents truths about the object such as its

    present condition and the materials it is made of and may include attributes such as the date and the maker. In general, a conservator's rea-

    soning about integrity is based on supporting physical evidence present in or on the object as well as on documentation.

    Many, however, believe that integrity is a matter of interpretation rather than of attribut- es that are integral to the object. It has been

    argued, for example, that even proven facts such as date and maker are not significant truths about the object, as they have no mean-

    ing unless interpreted (Handler 1992; Pearce

    1992). Interpretation means that cultural val- ues are superimposed and the result read as the truth.

    The following example illustrates this argu- ment. In 1993 the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology (MOA) agreed to loan masks to a First Nations family for use in a potlatch, in part because the

    objects were sturdy and dated from the middle of this century. However, if these same North- west Coast objects were in equally good condi-

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    tion but had been made in 1825 or 1790, they would be among a very few objects from that

    period that have survived; it is doubtful that MOA would have lent them for use in a dance. The date in this case was given value as a relative concept rather than as a fact.

    These questions about the nature of

    "integrity" reflect back on the larger question of how a conservator proceeds when working on an object from another culture when the values of the originating culture are in apparent conflict with the values of conservation.




    New purposes for museums mean change, perhaps adding a layer of difficulty to accep- tance by the conservation profession, whose mission is essentially to preserve against change. ("Preservation against change" is also a value found in traditional museology, which often

    presented cultures in a frozen time frame referred to as the "ethnographic present," which was considered to represent the "authentic" culture.)

    Cultural meanings do change, however, and to give precedence to cultural integrity means

    accepting that there may be different "truths" at different times. An example has been given of a canoe that was originally created as one of

    many utilitarian objects but now has a different cultural significance for the people because it is the only one left (Phillips 1991, cited in Clavir 1992, and Feest 1995).

    In accepting that cultural meanings change, conservators are being asked not only to value the less tangible attributes of an object but also to realize the acceptability of continuing process and the validity of a more abstract, shifting context than is usually found in con- servation. This new conceptual demand on conservators parallels, in many ways, the chang- ing nature of museums and the role of collec- tions in them.


    The challenging context for conservation ethics and practice poses a fundamental ques- tion: For ethnographic conservation, which

    parameters are and are not appropriate for col- lections today, whether they are housed in tra- ditional museums or in postmodern, living museums? The answers are sought in part in whole profession's acceptance or rejection of these developments and their implications.

    Challenges to fundamental conceptual frameworks are often received as adversarial by those who believe in the value of the frame- work. Indeed, they may well be presented as such by a challenger who perceives an entrenched and hostile system. Core emotions as well as core beliefs and intellectual argu- ments may be involved for all participants. This is one reason why it is valuable for conservators to take part in face-to-face discussions with

    indigenous peoples from different cultures on conservation issues: the whole person is involved, and points of view can be appreciated as well as understood.

    The appropriate solution or ethic may evolve slowly and apply differently to different situations. In addition, the sanctioned way to

    proceed may depend considerably on develop- ments in other arenas, such as legal and moral claims regarding ownership and, in Canada, legal developments concerning aboriginal rights. In spite of these complexities and even while sorting out the ethical dilemmas, the fol-

    lowing observations could guide reflections on the current, fluid situation.



    In reality, museums make decisions every day that have the potential to compromise the physical safety of the collections. It is useful to remember that it is not just in the area of indigenous collections that conservators work with these challenges to ideal conservation

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    practice. For example, there may be touchable

    objects in a museum, loans to venues without the best environmental conditions, rentals or events in gallery space that involve bringing food, drink, or flowers into the exhibition

    areas, or simply a lack of funding or lack of will to make good storage conditions a top priority. Historically, North American museums have not been exemplary in the standard of care accorded collections of Native American and Canadian material culture.

    In addition, permitted use of objects in museum collections is not a new phenomenon posed only by requests from indigenous peo- ples. Many museums have enviable objects designated "touchable" as part of their collec- tions. The Victoria and Albert Museum, for

    example, has a mid-16th-century Ming vase that visitors can touch in a well-designed per- manent exhibition; the vase has not suffered

    damage (Kerr 1995). To cite other cases, con- servators accept that historic library and archival material is used, although unlike muse- um loans for potlatches, it is usually handled within the building and under conservation

    guidelines. Conservators of contemporary art

    accept that the living artist may elect to put an

    object at risk during an exhibition as part of the artistic intent, and copyright laws in many countries would support the artist. Architec- tural conservators accept major changes to the

    physical integrity of buildings to conform with fire codes and new use patterns. Military museums provide a perhaps less known but

    very interesting example. In England and

    Canada, there are examples of temporary loans of objects for use, such as donated medals tem-

    porarily lent back for remembrance cere- monies. It is also common for museums hous-

    ing regimental regalia to lend back ceremonial items for annual regimental rituals.

    All the key words are here: ceremony, use, loan for use, negotiation with the originator of the work, the originator having the right not

    only to participate in decisions but also at times to make decisions regarding the object.


    The evidence provided by daily museum

    practice is also a basis on which First Nations

    people challenge museums. Today as in the

    past, museum practice often continues to be far from the ideal represented in museum theory. Questions can easily be raised about why many storage rooms are overcrowded; why the cur- rent First Nations' name for their home or

    people often is not represented in the perma- nent exhibitions or the catalog records; why insect infestations still occur even though prop- er procedures and monitoring are recognized; why even well-known museums are not able to maintain good environmental conditions for all their collections or to have completed earth-

    quake mitigation measures in areas where they are necessary. If museums have not acted upon the expert knowledge they have had for years, why should one trust the viability of the muse- um enterprise? When First Nations people from a particular community come to see

    objects from their own heritage, there is con- siderable chance that they will also see failings in museum practice.

    3.3 OBSERVATION 3:


    Even if a museum's goals or a conservator's

    goals are very different from the goals of the First Nations community or individual, com- mon ground may still be found. One should not assume a false dichotomy by posing object conservation against cultural preservation.

    Deborah Doxtator, a Native Canadian, com- ments that partnerships between aboriginal peoples and non-native Canadian museums are hindered "by the fact there is no one shared

    goal. There are instead parallel goals" (Doxta- tor 1994, 22). Even parallel goals, though, are

    positive if the result adequately serves the dif- ferent participants. For example, the use of dust covers in the storage room for culturally

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    sensitive objects in the Museum of New Mexi- co allows cultural privacy for the objects and viewers while representing sound conservation

    practice. The U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert

    Bay, British Columbia, has both a repatriated collection of older potlatch regalia and a sepa- rate contemporary potlatch collection that

    community members can borrow and use; conservators would agree with this approach.

    Finally, First Nations people have indicated that they want the best standard of care and conservation accorded to their objects that are housed in museums (Matas 1993). Again, con- servators would agree. Leona Sparrow, a coun- cillor for the Musqueam band on whose terri-

    tory the University of British Columbia Muse- um of Anthropology stands, supports this state- ment and adds the proviso that conservation measures must not compromise the cultural

    integrity of the items or the community's abili-

    ty to access them (Sparrow 1995).


    At least one code of ethics for conservators states that First Nations have a deciding say in their material cultural heritage even when it is no longer legally in their ownership. The fol-

    lowing passage is reprinted with permission from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural

    Heritage Value: The indigenous heritage of Maori and Moriori ... is inseparable from identi-

    ty and well-being and has particular cultural meanings.

    The Treaty ofWaitangi is the

    founding document of our nation and is the basis for indigenous guardian- ship. It recognizes the indigenous people as exercising responsibility for their treasures, monuments, and sacred

    places. This interest extends beyond current legal ownership wherever such heritage exists. Particular knowl-

    edge of heritage values is entrusted to chosen guardians. The conservation of places of indigenous cultural her-

    itage value is therefore conditional on decisions made in the indigenous community, and should proceed only in this context. Indigenous conserva- tion precepts are fluid and take account of the continuity of life and the needs of the present as well as the

    responsibilities of guardianship and association with those who have gone before. In particular, protocols of

    access, authority, and ritual are han- dled at a local level. General princi- ples of ethics and social respect affirm that such protocols should be observed (ICOMOS 1993, Sec. 2).


    The following statement reflects a traditional conservation viewpoint, one that undoubtedly was accepted by most conservation profession- als at the time it was written in 1986: "The conservator's duty is to take all possible precau- tions to prevent or minimize damage to collec- tions and to oppose any situation, whether active or passive, that may cause or encourage any form of deterioration. The welfare of the

    object takes precedence over all other consider- ations" (Ward 1986, 9).

    One short decade later, a conservation pro- fessional in a museum working with cultural

    protocols established by the originators of a

    particular object or collection might write instead: "The conservator's duty is to take all

    possible precautions to prevent or minimize

    damage to collections within a particular situa- tion. The conservator's responsibility is to give information (for example, risks, options, con- servation ethics, and procedures) and offer to

    take action regarding any situation, whether active or passive, that may cause or encourage any form of physical deterioration of material

    heritage.While conservation information and

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    intervention consider the physical welfare of the object and are based in science, what is

    appropriate to do is based in a larger context in which the originators of the objects or their descendants have a key role."

    This statement does not negate the conven- tional paradigm, as seen by conservators, for what is significant to consider in conservation

    decisions, but it does change the emphasis so that the larger context is acknowledged as pri- mary. It enlarges as well the accepted concept of a multidisciplinary team having responsi- bility for conservation decisions; the team includes cultural representatives as well as other

    professionals. The statement maintains the conservator's professional position as the expert in the science and scientific techniques of con- servation of cultural property, but his or her

    responsibility lies in using this knowledge to make others aware in particular case situations, rather than assuming that this knowledge dic- tates the most appropriate way to proceed.

    This statement relinquishes, in keeping with the postmodernism of the past decade, the

    authority of conservation science as the de facto overriding decision maker in the

    preservation of material culture, at least that from peoples not of the museum's culture. In

    addition, it relinquishes the tone of moral

    authority that, at least in Canada in the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s, tended to be expressed with conservation guidelines.

    These changes reflect similar changes in the curatorial areas and administration of many anthropology museums. It remains to be seen whether the new directions in ethnographic conservation in these museums are appropriate to the evolution of the conservation field as a whole.


    Many of the ideas for this paper were original- ly presented at a colloquium titled "Native American Collections: Preserving Objects ver- sus Preserving Culture," at the Institute of Fine

    Arts, Conservation Center, New York Universi-

    ty, April 28, 1994.


    1. The following terms are also used in relation to

    indigenous peoples referred to in this article:

    Native Americans, First Nations, First Peoples, and



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    MIRIAM CLAVIR received an honors B.A. in

    anthropology and archaeology from the University of Toronto and a master of art conservation from

    Queen's University. She has worked in conservation

    at the Royal Ontario Museum and for Parks Canada

    in Ottawa and Quebec City and since 1980 has

    been the conservator at the University of British

    Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

    She teaches courses in preventive conservation and

    lectures in museum principles and methods for the

    UBC Department of Anthropology. Address: 6393

    N.W Marine Dr.,Vancouver, B.C.V6T 1Z2, Canada.

    Received for review November 1, 1995. Accepted for publication January 31, 1996.

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    Article Contentsp. [99]p. 100p. 101p. 102p. 103p. 104p. 105p. 106p. 107

    Issue Table of ContentsJournal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp. 79-167Front Matter [pp. 108-122]A Conservation Case Study of Polyrama Panoptique Paper Viewing Slides [pp. 79-98]Reflections on Changes in Museums and the Conservation of Collections from Indigenous Peoples [pp. 99-107]The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects [pp. 109-121]Gas Chromatographic Analysis of Amino Acids as Ethyl Chloroformate Derivatives. Part 2, Effects of Pigments and Accelerated Aging on the Identification of Proteinaceous Binding Media [pp. 123-144]Air-Coupled Ultrasonic System: A New Technology for Detecting Flaws in Paintings on Wooden Panels [pp. 145-162]Book ReviewReview: untitled [pp. 163-165]

    Correction: Investigation of a Surface Tarnish Found on 19th-Century Daguerreotypes [p. 165]Back Matter [pp. 166-167]


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