JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 23 to 29)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 23 to 29)

COLLABORATIVE STRATEGIES FOR THE PRESERVATION OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN MATERIAL CULTURE

BRUCE BERNSTEIN



1 IN-HOUSE WORK

At the Museum of New Mexico we are taking a proactive stance in regard to cultural materials. One example is the compilation of inventories of sensitive objects. Museum policy requires these inventories to be completed and ready for distribution by 1995. These inventories will include religious objects, human remains, funerary objects, photographs and other depictions of sensitive materials, and documents about sensitive materials. We have completed the inventory of potentially sensitive ethnographic materials and are currently engaged in the inventory of human remains and funerary objects. These inventories represent the museum's best estimate of the sensitivity of objects and are used only as a guideline for beginning discussions with community-based groups. They demonstrate the museum's concern while providing some organization to the bewildering world of museum collections. Concerned parties can begin negotiation by responding directly to these lists, commenting specifically on them, and making additions and subtractions. Another result of our inventory procedure, based on the advice of Indian staff and advisory board members, is that access to these potentially sensitive collections is restricted to concerned parties and a few curators. This rather simple step is indicative of a respect for the culture and beliefs of our constituents.

Another example of the museum's proactive work involves storage. A National Endowment for the Humanities preservation grant will allow us to move sensitive materials from cabinets in thoroughfare storage rooms to restricted rooms away from daily museum collections work. Only sensitive materials will be stored in the small, isolated rooms which are designed to replicate the dark, isolated storage rooms found in Pueblo houses. The use of open shelving will allow the objects to “breathe” and assure that there are no barriers, such as cabinet doors, between visitors and their cultural materials. Objects will be laid flat, not stacked or nested. The Kachina doll collections will also be moved to a new location away from regular foot traffic and work areas. Although these carved wood and painted figures are not sensitive to Hopi and Zuni people—and certainly the Heard Museum in Phoenix exhibits Kachinas with the blessings of Hopi people—they are considered sacred or religious objects in the Rio Grande Pueblos. For example, when San Felipe Pueblo schoolchildren go on field trips they are accompanied by many chaperones. These adult supervisors are there not because the children may misbehave but rather to protect them from things in the outside world they should not see, such as Kachina dolls. By removing these collections from work rooms and thoroughfare areas, the museum staff will enable Indian staff members and researchers to be more comfortable in the storage rooms. Collection storage is thus driven by cultural as well as preservation concerns.

As part of the Museum of New Mexico's process for identifying potentially sensitive materials, conservation treatment of sensitive objects without consultation is not permitted. Our policy specifies that “Conservation treatment shall not be performed on identified culturally sensitive materials without consulting concerned parties.” Conservation practices may be contrary to the original intended use of an object if that object was meant to deteriorate. Further, proper maintenance and repair may only be allowable if performed by initiated religious society members. Thus, it may be both insensitive and presumptuous to have a noninitiated (and therefore non-“knowing”) person work on an object; moreover, our intervention may be insensitive and potentially harmful to the object and the personnel. Obviously, at times this view can be difficult to reconcile with conservation obligations. Current sensibilities, however, place decision making power over treatment of these objects with Indian people and, in turn, place the curator and conservator in an ever-shifting role. Clearly, museum preservation concerns and goals must be articulated or possibly altered to reflect a more collaborative approach. P.L. 101–601 assumes ownership of culturally sensitive materials lies with Indian people. Therefore, although it may seem harsh, preservation (or interpretation) without consultation is cultural appropriation.

The museum is using consultation and ethical consideration to guide whether conservation of human remains, funerary objects, or sacred materials may include the application of substances. Consultants have told us that application of conservation materials such as consolidants may be considered a further desecration of human burials. We are also learning to consider other cultural viewpoints. For example, we have found that Indian people are shocked and upset that we have separated funerary objects from burials. Common museum practices have dictated that like materials are stored together, but now we need to reassess this approach.


Copyright 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works