JAIC 1983, Volume 23, Number 1, Article 1 (pp. 1 to 6)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1983, Volume 23, Number 1, Article 1 (pp. 1 to 6)


Sara J. Wolfe, & Lisa Mibach

ABSTRACT—Decisions regarding the selection of conservation treatment methods for Native American sacred objects are discussed in light of the following considerations: 1) unresolved questions regarding legal ownership of collections, 2) the potential for treatments to prejudice future treatment options and the analytical value of collections, and 3) the consideration of non-physical aspects of sacred objects.

THE FUNDAMENTAL THESIS of this paper is that we should reconsider the circumstances under which sacred objects undergo modern, scientific conservation treatment, since the very process of handling, documentation and treatment could constitute interference with the integrity of the object and destruction of its functional and spiritual value. Further, even if treatment is considered necessary in principle, perhaps certain restrictions, precautions, or preconditions should be integrated in the analysis of what constitutes appropriate treatment.

There are at least three issues involving these objects which lead to this discussion. First are the outstanding and unresolved questions regarding the legal ownership of collections. These questions are based on the conflict of value systems between Native American groups and many within the museum community, and stem from requests by Native Americans for the repatriation of some cultural materials. Second, there is a growing concern that some treatments may be prejudicing both future treatment options as well as the analytical value of collections, and third, a concern that some facets of sacred objects—specifically the non-physical aspects of these materials—may be overlooked in the museum setting.

We should begin by attempting to clarify the definition of a sacred object. This is a difficult undertaking in itself because nearly every aspect of traditional Indian life is permeated with religion and ceremony, and the quality of sacredness touches many objects in the material culture inventory. For the purposes of this discussion, let us limit ourselves to only those objects which both Indian and non-Indian can readily identify as items which are used specifically for a religious purpose, such as prayer or ceremony.

In August of 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. In addition to guaranteeing the rights of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut and Native Hawaiians to “believe, express and exercise the traditional religions,” it also determined that this freedom included, but was not limited to, “access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”1

While this law does not mandate the return of sacred objects to tribes or groups, the phrases “access to” and “use and possession of sacred objects” have served to fuel arguments by Native American groups seeking the repatriation of their traditional cultural materials, which are often held in museum collections. The future disposition of these materials may be the issue which is most critical in deciding what program of conservation should be undertaken for these objects. For this reason, the issue of repatriation from the museological as well as the Native American view should be considered. This whole issue, not limited solely to Native American objects, is tremendously emotional, and has unleashed a wave of conflicting ethical and moral views regarding what, how much and to whom objects should be returned, if they are returned at all. In many instances, these views represent diametrically opposed value systems which seem to have no common ground for the resolution of these conflicts of purpose. (Note: the authors wish to emphasize that as conservators, we do not take sides or imply that either of these viewpoints is right or wrong. Rather, the issue has led to a reconsideration of our own ethical responsibilities for the care of these objects.)

In the first issue of the Museum Studies Journal,2 G. Ellis Burcaw plainly states one of the current viewpoints regarding non-Western cultural material based on his own interpretation of the American Association of Museums Code of Ethics. We cite this viewpoint as illustration of the end of the spectrum most opposed to the Native American view. As Mr. Burcaw states it, the purpose of museum professionalism in the United States as defined by the AAM Code of Ethics does “place great stress on the preservation of collections, public education, research, honesty, breadth of responsibility, and so on.” He goes on to state that “the potential loss of objects from the collections must be regarded as seriously as the danger of fire or an insect infestation” because, “except for duplicates of idiosyncratic items the loss of any specimens at all might impair a museum's work.”

In addition, Mr. Burcaw highlights what he considers to be a modern museological view toward the issue of repatriation and toward the value systems of Native Americans as well as other descendants of various non-Western cultures by declaring, “the implicit assumption that a people cannot rediscover its soul or reestablish its identity without the recovery of craft items or ceremonial regalia made by their more primitive ancestors seems extravagant, if not downright fanciful. Surely, a people's heritage, personality, and sense of identity lie more in intangibles than in objects…”

The other point of view is condensed from a presentation by George Horse Capture to the 1980 AAM Annual Meeting3 regarding the recovery of and accessibility to sacred objects in museum collections. He said, “Indian people utilize special items to help communicate with the One Above … the items used in these religious experiences are special for they have a vital function. Only they can reach to the One Above … when used in a proper way by the proper people … At this point in the reawakening of our religious lives … we need something … that … tribal institutions can relate to and draw strength from. This center can only be our Native religion (which) needs an aspect of unaltered continuity that reaffirms our identity … we need our Native religion and we cannot have it without (the) associated materials.”

The implications of Mr. Burcaw's statements on museum professionalism ignore on the one hand that museums may not have clear accession and deaccession policies or clear statements of purpose, and may therefore contain duplicates, unprovenienced materials or documented collections. In the case of sacred objects which were collected, for example, by confiscation, the information concerning their use and function would not be part of the museum record. In this instance the value of those materials as research or educational tools could be questioned and a request for their return could possibly be honored without detriment to the intent or purpose of the museum. On the other side, there is no mention of the fact that not every request for the return of a sacred object may be presented by a legitimate representative of a group or tribe. In addition, as David Finster points out in his 1975 article entitled “Museums and Medicine Bundles,”4 in several well-documented cases sacred materials were ceremonially transferred to museums for protection and safe-keeping when there was nobody left who knew how to use them properly. In these cases debate over a request for return of the materials would be diverted to the propriety of a museum's ownership and whether or not the requestor is a legitimate holder of rights to the material.

An example of one kind of resolution between the museological view of the collection as a means of education and expansion of knowledge and the desire of a group of people to re-establish their cultural and religious continuity is the presentation by the Denver Art Museum to the Zuni of a War God in 1979. This case is interesting not only for the solutions to a question of legal ownership and moral obligation, but because there was an explicit recognition of the non-physical aspects of a sacred object.

Some of the arguments presented by the Zuni to the Museum regarding the recovery of their stolen God were: 1) the God is the community property of Zuni and as such could not be transferred away from the group except by theft, and 2) the function of the God is in part to perpetuate the continuity of the group, and if it is not in its proper setting, all is not well with the world. In other words, if the God were not handled in the traditional, proper manner, harm could come not only to the Zuni, but to whomever had taken it or had possession of it.

While declining to state whether the God was being returned to Zuni because it had been acquired, albeit unknowingly, as stolen property, or because the Museum wished to donate the God, the Denver Art Museum took the position that because in Zuni religion, “the War God is a deity and a present, animate object of worship, rather than a symbol or art object,” the God does constitute inalienable communal property. The Museum went further to state that while they recognized their public responsibility toward the preservation of their collections, the museum had an equal interest in “strengthening its relations with the Zuni people and other creative cultures as an institution which displays and preserves art objects from all cultures with sensitivity and appreciation.”5

The ethical responsibilities of the museum profession with regard to ownership, display and study of sacred objects are not easily resolved, and as in the case of the Denver Art Museum, sometimes involve compromise that is not easily swallowed even if both sides potentially benefit from the solution.

The ethical responsibilities of the conservator toward the preservation of these materials, however, may be more easily resolved. Our own code of ethics appears to give us a much clearer directive than does the AAM code on how we should approach sacred objects. We are charged to be “govered by unswerving respect for the aesthetic, historic and physical integrity of the object.”6 This integrity surely implies more than the physical evidence of use or signs of modifications constituting the historical record of the object. Sacred objects are considered by some to be living sources of power; as such we must be as careful of their spiritual integrity as we are of their physical integrity.

In devising conservation treatments, we endeavor to use methods which are reversible, and further, methods which will not prejudice the future use, treatment or analysis of the object. This concept has usually been applied as an ethical reluctance to prejudice future research by the use of materials which make later testing impossible or inaccurate. A typical example has been raised by Mary Lou Florian, Conservation Scientist of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, where the seemingly straight forward procedure of ethylene oxide fumigation may invalidate new analytical techniques used to determine species origin of sinew.7 In the case of sacred objects, we should also endeavor not to prejudice the future use of these materials in their potential context as part of ceremonies in the practice of Native American religion, should these materials be returned for reasons beyond our control. Our concern, then, should pass beyond what may be considered “physical reversibility” to “spiritual reversibility.

Most of us are not educated to judge what may or may not be “spiritually reversible.” This is why we began with the statement that in our opinion sacred objects probably should not be treated. However, there are certainly avenues to gain appropriate information. The North American Indian Museums Association (NAIMA)8 has identified regional representatives in the United States and Canada who may be able to answer our questions. These people may also be able to refer us to tribal religious leaders who may be more knowledgeable than we, in judging the appropriateness of a treatment with respect to how that treatment might affect the future spiritual use of an object, or in determining how a sacred object should be cared for in general terms. The phrase “cared for” is chosen over “conserved” because a great many sacred objects require periodic ceremonial maintenance. This ceremonial maintenance ranges from prayer ceremonies involving the use of a religious bundle, to the feeding of False Face Masks. Some of these ceremonies include procedures recognizable to conservators as sound housekeeping procedures, such as annual inspection by trained people and regular “fumigation” with smoke smudge of sweetgrass or other aromatic substances. Many aspects of traditional maintenance are thus very similar to preventive conservation techniques; they have, after all, preserved the objects, often for a century or more in unfavorable environments, until they arrived in our collections.

The traditional methods may therefore be an avenue which we can pursue in an effort to reconcile our difficulties in dealing with the idea that we may not be able to fumigate, repair or consolidate according to our customary methods. The search for answers to conservation problems involving the use of traditional techniques is not a new concept—research has been ongoing in Dr. O. P. Agrawal's National Research Laboratory for Conservation in Lucknow9 for a number of years in an attempt to isolate the fungicidal or insecticidal properties of traditional materials such as birch bark and wooden and textile storage containers which might be incorporated into contemporary museum storage systems.

On the other hand, traditional maintenance should not mean that we can rub bear grease into everything because it is more “traditional.” Our own professional approach seems to have altered over the past few decades as we have learned that many treatments which seemed innocent and positive at the time have turned out to limit our analytical and treatment options, or have even been downright harmful. For practical purposes it may be enough tgive up the satisfaction of cleaning and mending or consolidating with our latest all-purpose “goo” in favor of more passive, preventive approaches such as environmental control. There will still be emergencies, however, such as a dermestid infestation in a bundle, that will require action.

Perhaps the most positive approach we can take toward the re-evaluation of the sensitive and ethical treatment of Native American sacred objects is to:

  1. Make contact through the representatives of NAIMA with legitimate religious, rather than political elders of those groups represented in your collections, so that they can assist in the development of an “emergency preparedness plan” to deal with situations that threaten the existence of those objects.
  2. Be prepared for contradictory information and opinions, since the variety of sacred objects and their traditional care will vary from group to group, and opinion may vary from person to person within a group.
  3. Do the absolute minimum possible. Some museums have legitimate ceremonial owners available who perform prescribed rituals. If the appropriate person is available, perhaps he or she could do the handling, inspection and even remedial work on objects with the advice of the conservator. These individuals could also be helpful in caring for collections where specific taboos exist, such as prohibitions on handling of certain specimens by women.
  4. We may also wish to form an ad-hoc group which can make itself available to NAIMA to work with that group, first in clarifying what constitutes a sacred object, second in defining what aspects of our work might jeopardize the end use of a sacred object, and third, in developing ways of dealing with emergencies.

Our emphasis has shifted, in line with other philosophical changes in our society from a confidence in technology which encouraged an interventionist approach to a more wholistic approach in which “less is more.” In taking into account the fact that there may be more aspects to an object than we may have previously considered, and that the future disposition of sacred objects may not be within the carefully controlled environment of a museum, we should re-examine our standard treatments to identify the procedures that improve tha physical condition of an object but do not unintentionally destroy its integrity, purpose and future usefulness.


P.L. 95–341. “American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” Council for Museum Anthropology Newsletter, v. 3, no. 3 (1979):5–6.

Burcaw, G. Ellis, “Museological View of the Repatriation of Museum Objects.” Museum Studies Journal, v. 1, no. 1(1983):8–11.

Horse Capture, George P., “Displaying American Indian Religious Material” (text of an unpublished speech). Annual Meeting, American Association of Museums, 1980.

Finster, David, “Museums and Medicine Bundles.” Indian Historian, v. 8, no. 2 (1975):40–48.

Childs, Elizabeth C. “Museums and the American Indian: Legal Aspects of Repatriation.” Council for Museum Anthropology Newsletter, v. 4, no. 4(1980):4–27.

American Institute for Conservation, “Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.” AIC Directory (1982):xviii–xxxix.

Florian, Mary Lou. Presentation to the AIC Annual Meeting, May, 1983. See also: “Ethylene Oxide: A Statement of Concern.” AIC Newsletter, August (1983):16.

North American Indian Museums Association c/o Native American Program, Office of Museum Programs, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.

National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, C-257, Nirala Nagar, Lucknow 226007, India.


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Copyright 1983 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works