Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Objects Specialty Group
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The Practical Aspects of Consultation with Communities
Jessica Johnson, Susan Heald, Kelly McHugh, Elizabeth Brown and Marian Kaminitz
National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution
NMAI Conservators are holding "Conservation Consultations" with representatives of over 25 native communities to prepare objects that will be displayed at the September 2004 opening of the new Mall museum of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). These consultations reflect the Mission Statement of the NMAI to "...recognize and affirm to Native communities and the non-Native public the historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of the Natives of the Western Hemisphere by advancing - in consultation, collaboration and cooperation with Natives - knowledge and understanding of Native protect, support, and enhance the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of Native culture and community". We approach the management of the museum's collections as a partnership with our native constituency. The challenge for the museum is to balance our institutional practices with the concerns of the native communities. Acknowledging and striving to understand the fundamental differences in the world-views of native communities compared with the role of the conventional museum is a critical factor in attaining this goal.

Three major exhibits at the Mall museum are being developed through a collaborative process where representatives from the Curatorial Department have worked with communities through numerous visits both to the museum and in the community to define the storyline and to select the objects. Once these decisions are made and objects are selected, community representatives come to NMAI to advise conservators on how every object should be prepared for exhibit. This experience, accompanied by careful introspection, has helped us develop a process that may be of use to other institutions and individuals. More and more museums are attempting to build relationships with Native communities that will garner direct advice on caring for collections in storage and on display. The concentrated NMAI experience has allowed us to very rapidly examine and adapt our processes to accommodate our visitors and to record information so that other NMAI staff members that do not attend the consultation can use the information in their treatments and preparation for display.

This paper will not describe the theoretical aspects of why we should include consultation as part of our treatment process (which has been the focus of several previous NMAI presentations) - it will focus on the practical aspects of how to make it work effectively. A number of topics will be addressed such as:
  • How do you find a community representative?
  • How do you prepare for an exhibit?
  • How do you make the institutional experience comfortable for visitors who may be from very small towns and foreign countries?
  • How do you avoid imparting your opinions when you really want to hear theirs?
  • What questions should you ask?
  • What questions should you avoid?
  • What do you do when you are requested to do something that makes you uncomfortable?
  • How do you document the process?
  • How do you clarify issues once the visitors have left?
  • How do you maintain your connections for the long term?

An understanding of both the need for consultations and the practical aspects of how to make them work ensures that objects are preserved and presented in a way that best reflects the wishes of Native communities.

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