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)




As an ethnographer, I cannot emphasize enough what I have learned from these negotiations. As a result of the contributions of knowledgeable Indian people, a curator's understanding of a museum's collection is enhanced. In one situation, I learned more in a few hours than in 10 years of formal and informal fieldwork. For example, I understood there to be some factionalism present in a certain pueblo, but not until their representatives walked into the room and I witnessed their varied reactions to the sensitive materials for review on the table did I begin to understand how factionalism is used daily to negotiate the governance of this pueblo. Through increased understanding of museum collections and the cultures they represent, exhibitions and publications are empowered and therefore potentially better. The Museum of New Mexico's current exhibition “Steady Hands, White Metal” was jointly curated by two Native jewelers and myself. The interpretive power of the exhibit increased exponentially by this collaboration, resulting in a well-received, popular exhibition. These jewelers also helped us determine to what extent conservators should clean the silver by considering how Native people wear silver work rather than by relying on the often fallacious method of leaving patination to make the silver look older as is commonly practiced in the Southwest by art dealers and private collectors.

While we physically preserve a sacred object in a museum, are we at the same time causing harm to the culture and the people it represents by holding an object out of context and away from the community responsible for its care and for the maintenance of the traditions it may represent? A museum's and an Indian community's senses of preservation may be in conflict. Some sacred objects are made to be used and then allowed to return to the elements. Whose definition of “sacred” should museums use, and how can museums cope with a changing definition? Are our preservation policies actually destructive to communities, and do they serve to desecrate objects? What about the “power” in sacred objects? Are we putting ourselves in danger? As a pueblo colleague has told me, “Pueblo culture values newness and renewal; they aren't interested in museums and old things.”

Given the attention our collections now elicit, I would suggest that the idea of how power is transmitted may be changing and that Indian people are becoming collectors and venerators of the past. Power is now thought to be invested permanently in objects by practitioners rather than resting there temporarily. This view places legitimately collected objects in a changed realm of potential sensitivity and repatriation. In the sense that curators wish to be considered as more enlightened and open than were our ancestors, we must also accept that Indian peoples' traditions change to remain vital. Four years ago two sacred objects, religious society—owned corn mother fetishes, were given to the museum with the specific intent that they would be repatriated to what we believed to be their pueblo of origin. The identification was based on information from the donor, curatorial knowledge, and consultant opinions. The pueblo's head priest arrived at the museum with two assistants and the lieutenant governor. Only the head priest approached the end of the room where the fetishes were; clearly, he was the only one initiated. He suggested that these fetishes were not from his pueblo but from another which we then contacted. Representatives of this pueblo came in, but they also did not claim the objects. The native people involved were concerned the pieces would be returned to the proper group. Sacred objects are living, and by a museum's possession of them, we can and often do become obligated parties. In this particular situation, I believe the museum has ended up in a “holding-trust” situation. The first man probably recognized the fetishes as belonging to a particular individual who had left the religious society and was therefore no longer considered living; consequently, the fetishes were not to be associated with because “dead” or polluted objects could not be brought back into the village. This case also illustrates that there is often neither the cultural mechanism for the return of objects nor the will to have them returned.

Traditions change to survive. In some cases of individually owned sacred objects, power resided within the individual who would then invest his or her power in that object. When the object became worn or used it was then removed from use and the practitioner made a new object. More and more often, however, the objects themselves hold power and are considered sacred in themselves. For example, Navajo medicine bundles are today increasingly thought to be inherently powerful and “tribally owned,” whereas in the not-too-distant past bundles were personal property that were handed down to apprentices. This changing circumstance represents a significant shift in the way power is held and perceived.

The definition of “sacred” is problematic. What is and is not sacred is subject to change. Individual as opposed to community ownership can also be troublesome for a museum. The Museum of New Mexico Policy on Culturally Sensitive Materials dictates that appropriate curators approach concerned parties. This is not an extraordinary procedure given the fact that curators are expected to know their collections and thus through the process of locating the proper parties will have the opportunity to learn more about the collections for which they are responsible.

What museums retain may become models for future pieces of regalia. In 1978, Ian Brown, a Maidu man living in the Sierra Nevada of California, gave me a rationale for why the “old people” sold or gave their power objects and dance regalia to museums in the 1900–20 period. Museums were perceived to be banks, and those old Indian doctors thought it was safer to put some objects in a “trust account” for future generations rather than leave them where they might be misused by a generation that they felt was not well versed or particularly pleased with being Indians. Those were especially harsh years of government programs to assimilate Indian people by, for example, forcibly taking children away from their families and sending them to boarding schools. These power objects and dance regalia have been “withdrawn” in the past two decades and have served as models for dance regalia for such dance groups as the Maidu Dancers and Traditionalists and Bill Franklin's Miwok Dancers. Museums house “living” objects, and ultimately the care provided through past, present, and future use of climate control, fumigants, consolidants, and handling regulations all may have an impact on the availability of objects as cultural patrimony and souces of pride. Certainly, we must continue to care for and preserve collections when possible, and it has been my experience that most if not all Indian peoples understand and appreciate the role museums have played in the preservation of cultural materials. Collaboration may teach new and better methods of preservation by sharing knowledge of native use, care, repair, and construction. Obviously, it can still be difficult to reconcile collection preservation obligations and ethics.

Copyright 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works