THE EXHIBITION AND CONSERVATION OF AFRICAN OBJECTS: CONSIDERING THE NONTANGIBLE
STEPHEN P. MELLOR
4 IMPLICATIONS FOR CONSERVATORS
These conclusions presenting a possible African view of indigenous material culture have important implications for conservators because they begin to broaden our understanding of the African objects we are responsible for and refine our treatment and exhibition care decisions.
Most important, it becomes clear that, as conservators, it is not necessary for conservators to treat African objects that are out of their cultural context with the same strict behavior required when they are within their cultural context; nor would Africans expect them to receive that kind of treatment. We need not feed these objects, wash them, dance them, suckle them, spit on them, beat them, insult them, sacrifice upon them, or subject them to limited visibility. Indeed, it is somewhat patronizing to presume that we could replicate these complex patterns of cultural behavior toward objects. Furthermore, we need not approach African objects with uncertainty, fear, or trepidation.
Standard conservation decisions that might be relevant to African objects include, for example, the method and degree to bulk gap filling materials to provide structural stability to a wooden object; the choice of synthetic resin and technique of application to consolidate applied incrustation; or the extent of filling and inpainting to provide visual integration to a painted surface. For example, the shattered arm on the nkisi in figure 5 was re-adhered and stabilized with Dow Corning RTV 3110 silicon rubber that was bulked with Union Carbide phenolic microballoons, BJO-0930. The acknowledgment and understanding of the nontangible attributes of African objects may not have a dramatic effect on conservation treatments, but at least they should affect the way conservators think about African art. These conservation decisions should be overshadowed by the conservator's responsibility to treat or participate in the installation of African objects in a manner that conscientiously respects the dignity of the cultures that produced them.
The interpretation of an object and its presentation for exhibition with dignity can be a difficult and subjective issue. The National Museum of African Art is in the initial planning stages of an exhibition of Kongo minkisi (plural of nkisi) and works by contemporary African artists who draw directly on the minkisi tradition. The artistic intention of the contemporary artists may preclude the use of vitrines to protect their constructions; however, conservation sensibility of lending and host institutions would undoubtedly require the vitrining of the fragile minkisi figures. This contradiction between the exhibition of objects borne of the same tradition must be resolved by the institution. One might ask, as well, if it is appropriate to vitrine objects of such unmitigated power. The conservation problems associated with leaving such complicated objects unvitrined are obvious, even to the novice.