JAIC 1995, Volume 34, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 187 to 193)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1995, Volume 34, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 187 to 193)



ABSTRACT—The practice of ethnographic and archaeological conservation in the United States is in the midst of change. Some of the factors influencing these changes are discussed, and the expansion of the traditional conservation methodology, which is founded on a materials-based perspective, is suggested. Also explored are topics such as the inclusion of indigenous ideas and the context of an object in its culture or through its collection; the object's museum life; and its changes due to display, loan, photography, and treatment. All this is discussed within the context of an exhibit called Paths of Life, organized by the Arizona State Museum in 1987.


Studies in the field of conservation traditionally have approached their objective from a materials-based perspective that examines the physical structure of objects. Technology and aesthetic style studies use visual information to seek the significance of tangible attributes found in artifacts and art objects. In these times of greater awareness of cultural diversity and cultural preservation in museum activities, many conservators are finding that the study and conservation of objects may include additional complex issues. The development of an interest in artists' intent on the part of conservators is notable because the AIC Guidelines for Practice do not specifically identify artists' intent as an obligation or concern. This development suggests that the conservation field is expanding to include the preservation of nontangible qualities. Because most material culture collections include objects that were not made for an aesthetic purpose, many ethnographic and archaeological conservators seek a methodological framework that expands their knowledge of the workings of people but does not involve theories of aesthetics.


While descriptive titles such as architectural or archaeological conservation are now used in the United States, most of the study and organization of information in the conservation field continues to be based on object composition. Technical studies that focus on the description and identification of materials, structure, and methods of fabrication use visual information to establish the significance of the tangible attributes of artifacts and art objects. Traditional conservation methodology follows the explicit functions of examination, documentation, preventive conservation, treatment, and restoration. Throughout this methodological process the values and aesthetics of Western civilization are traditionally taught and used. In other words, recognition of the artistic character of cultural objects is usually achieved by reference to Western art and not to the traditions from which the objects originated.

Within this decade, there has been evidence that this process is changing. For example, in 1990 Congress enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This act required museums to prepare summary inventories of human remains and associated funerary objects and written summaries of unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony by November 16, 1993. The complete inventories, done in consultation with appropriate tribal representatives, are due in November 1995. This legislation has had a profound impact on the nature of collections care and storage policies for many museums. A positive result is the increased communication between museum employees and representatives of cultural groups with material culture collections housed in those museums. This close contact has afforded the museum conservator the opportunity to learn more about the collections and their cultural context.

In 1992 many events of the Columbus Quincentenary drew attention to the consequences of Euroamerican contact with native peoples and the opinions of Native Americans today regarding that contact. Symposia such a the “Task Force on Museums and First Peoples Conference” in Canada and other meetings held in Central America and throughout the United States (e.g., “Keepers of the Treasures”) have provided the opportunity for American Indians to take some control in cultural preservation efforts. The United Nations named 1993 the International Year of Indigenous Peoples and drew attention to the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. Because this action was initiated in Australia, extensive museum policy for the protection and return of aboriginal property was developed there during that year.

As a result of the growing awareness of current indigenous perspectives, there are political implications today for collecting, exhibiting, collection research and access, educational programming, and the preservation of cultural property that simply did not exist 10 years ago. Museum professionals have been forced to adopt new attitudes toward the stewardship of collections in their care (P. H. Welsh 1992).

For many conservators who work with North American ethnographic and archaeological collections, broader cultural information has become very important to the process of conservation. Some attention has been given in the conservation field to the subject of sacred ethnographic objects. For example, in 1991 the meetings of both the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the Western Association of Art Conservators (WAAC) held special sessions that focused on the considerations required for the care of these types of objects (AIC 1992; E. C. Welsh 1992). However, conservators pay a somewhat unbalanced amount of attention to ethnographic sacred objects. Sacred objects make up only part of the objects, specimens, artifacts, and goods of the physical world that have cultural value. While the role of the professional conservator in the care of sacred objects may seem unclear, many of our concerns are simply not ours to solve. Because of NAGPRA legislation, issues of ownership, access, care, and preservation for many of these objects are now, or will be, outside our jurisdiction. Highly specialized spiritual care of objects is generally not an appropriate activity for the typical conservator. What is apparent is that conservators may need to rethink the methodology they use for the conservation of all examples of material culture rather than just those that are designated sacred, potent, or culturally sensitive.


Nontangible information provides the contextual meaning or sympathetic understanding of objects. It may or may not reflect the original artist's or maker's intent but may reveal equally significant information regarding the cultural purpose or function of an artifact. For example, a deformed basket may represent normal use or it may represent poor care. This information, combined with additional data concerning the entire life of the object, clarifies the approach needed for preservation activities. As conservators began to talk about the concept of cultural context information, it was thought that this concept would not have a dramatic effect on conservation treatments but could improve conservators' attitudes (Mellor 1992). Today, some conservators describe the importance of nontangible attributes as essential to conservation care and treatment. In fact, the designation “material culture conservator” may be a more accurate description of this conservation approach.

The label “artists' intent” is difficult to use when discussing objects that are not necessarily art, because the term implies exclusive visual function based on intrinsic aesthetic quality (Maquet 1971). Art objects are more often decontextualized so that their intrinsic merit may be enhanced. Even the term “original intent” may be problematic for many cultural materials. Richard West, director of the Smith-sonian's National Museum of the American Indian, has said, “The essence of indigenous nature continues to exist and to evolve in dynamic and culturally significant ways” (West 1993, 18). Perhaps the intent or context of objects also evolves, multiplies, or changes over time. If the concept of artists' intent may be broadened to include cultural context, then it would seem that conservators of the fine arts and conservators of material culture have a common concern.


A concern for broader cultural information is compatible with the approach that many researchers, scholars, and curators take. A domain of knowledge referred to as material culture studies tends to evaluate the importance of an object based on what can be learned from its context, the ideas behind it, and the forces that create it. Material culture is studied because it helps us understand the workings of individuals and societies.

Material culture studies began in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, most notably with General Pitt Rivers in the 1880s (Pearce 1991). However, as anthropology evolved into a social science during the 1920s, material culture studies decreased and became uneven. More recently, the value of artifacts in the study of societal values, attitudes, and ideas has been reaffirmed. Developments in contract archaeology or cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology and major changes in archaeological method and theory emphasize the importance of process interpretation, quantitative analysis, and interdisciplinary efforts (Bell 1985). Likewise, as ethnology studies became more focused on whole communities, collections became assemblages that represent a record of cultural life rather than isolated souvenirs or miscellaneous objects with minimal documentation. In these types of collections there is, at best, an internal coherence that demonstrates understanding. Systematic collections have significantly influenced both the quantity and quality of museum collections. The comparative research value of these objects is based on the quality of their documentation, organization, and protection from deterioration.

Integrating material culture studies with conservation studies offers at least two benefits. First, aspects of material culture studies may assist and guide conservators as we look for ways to improve our methodology for considering nontangible information. Second, conservation observations may illuminate and expand many issues in the study of people that have gone unnoticed.

Common to both disciplines is a need to understand the physical properties of objects. Material culture studies provides a flexible framework for research and discussion of a wide range of information regarding cultural belief, behavior, history, and survival, because there is no assumption that the collection or the culture are fixed. As information is interpreted, reconstructed, reinforced, and qualified through several stages of research, perceptions taken from all periods of the collection's history are valued.


Obtaining cultural context information involves intensive research about the production, use, and disposal of materials within a culture. Object histories or biographies reveal information about the values an artifact has obtained over time, from manufacture to the present. It is important to acknowledge that conservators do not begin their work without inheriting many past processes. Documentation must be gathered from numerous sources, and the problem of bias in those sources must be considered.

For example, a collection of ethnographic artifacts made by a western collector may represent an arbitrary selection or be restricted to the moment of personal contact. Thus, the collection may reflect more about the collector than it does about the native culture (Anderson 1979). Similarly, museum documentation may be sparse and anonymous because objects were often accepted only for their display and aesthetic qualities. Thus, little attention was paid to information beyond culture designation and year of acquisition (Sturtevant 1973). There are other examples of bias. For instance, sources of valuable documentation such as receipts, field notes, collector's lists, photographs, or references to acquisition method may have lost their connection to the collection, so relational information is unknown (McLendon 1981, Odegaard and Harvey 1982). Another good example involves early “improvements” that were required to turn specimens into display pieces and may be without documentation, so the purpose and methodology of the preservation effort are unclear (Freed 1981; Webster 1990). Although most conservation interventions have important benefits toward the maintenance of objects, much museum conservation today continues to be exhibit based. In fact, many objects have particularly extensive conservation histories. Without some reference to the cultural and historic context of objects, actions involving intervention and adjustment for aesthetic reasons may entail negative aspects. Also, while systematic archaeological or ethnographic information is usually extremely useful, by itself it rarely provides enough specifics on which to base conservation treatment decisions. Finally, indigenous peoples may possess unique experiences and insights that have implications for collections care in museums, but different advisers and consultants may have differing opinions (Smith 1993). Gaining “indigenous knowledge” or the “intellectual property of tribal groups” usually involves interviewing tribal members who have specific knowledge of the traditional use and importance of objects. Many tribal communities have declined to provide information on sensitive topics, or they may insist on protection of that information from general public access. While this issue has not yet been a major one for museum conservation, it is important to understand that artifact information may be valued and used differently in the tribal, academic, or business worlds (Pinel and Evans 1994).

Until recently, consideration of cultural perspective in treatment decision making has been on a rare case-by-case basis as specific need or opportunity presented itself. Responses by collection curators and managers to legislation and legal mandates have affected collection inventory, access, and accountability and forced conservators to respond to and participate in policy and procedure decisions that affect stored, loaned, and studied collections. Similarly, responses by curators, exhibit designers, and educators to persistent events, discussions, and commentary have influenced the nature and content of exhibits and publications and forced conservators to respond to and participate in decisions regarding the presentation of objects.


In 1987, the Arizona State Museum began planning for a new permanent exhibit of its ethnology collections. The exhibit, Paths of Life, focuses on the peoples of Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua (fig. 1). It displays about 600 objects and includes an enormous amount of information through text, labels, maps, and photographs. Themes of special relevance are traced through the periods of mythical origin, tribal history, and life today for each of 10 cultural groups. These groups further subdivide into more than 20 tribal affiliations. The exhibit attempts to show how a society's traditional values and beliefs, combined with the impact of Anglo contact, influence that society's continuing operation (Hilpert 1989). Indian consultants worked with curators during the planning phase to select appropriate story lines for each of the cultural groupings. During planning and implementation, more than 50 Native Americans were engaged as advisers, consultants, interns, artists, and life models. The process of incorporating their perspective to augment documentation and curatorial knowledge evolved over the years.

Fig. 1. View of the Paths of Life exhibit at the Arizona State Museum

In the Arizona State Museum Conservation Section, contextual information has always been critical to conservation treatment, but the process of obtaining and including it has changed. During the planning of Paths of Life, it became evident that the project would require the efforts of more than one conservator, as the single conservator also had to manage, develop, and maintain all the other conservation activities of the museum.

With the help of a conservation technician, narrative condition and technology summaries were completed for each selected object. Relevant copies of accession and catalog information as well as curatorial and archival notes and photographs were made. Published information on material composition, fabrication techniques, and cultural use from the anthropological literature was also collected. The information was compiled into binders. Meanwhile, as curators and exhibit designers were working on text and label information, representatives of the various Native American groups reviewed the selection of artifacts.

Discussion questions regarding cleaning, stabilization, repairs, or alterations in appearance were also developed. Most often, the conservation actions involved examination and adjustments that would ensure object stability or help clarify the aspect of interpretation or context that was being presented in the exhibit. When an object required more extensive conservation, it was discussed further.

In the process of evaluating objects for the exhibit, the conservation documentation process seemed to become more detailed and more subjective. Our treatment approach was biased by the cultural, curatorial, and archival information we had at the time. We had to continually ask ourselves at what point the treatment was done and why. Consciously recording relevant aspects of the object's condition with aspects of its cultural, technological, collection, and museum history afforded us the opportunity to rethink what we were preserving, or more important, what we were potentially altering. Preserving what the object means in a humanistic way became the point.

In researching treatment strategies, we recognized that different conservators may treat similar objects in very different ways based on the degree of cultural background they have. At worst, selective cleaning may remove intentional contrasts that threaten to unbalance the piece; consolidation or coatings may re-present the surface; and loss compensation may in fact overfinish the piece.

During the implementation phase of Paths of Life, hiring of an assistant conservator was not feasible. A postgraduate intern funded through the Getty Grant Program and five graduate conservation interns from the University of Delaware-Winterthur, Buffalo State College, and Queens University programs worked on this project from 1991 through 1994. They did not have specific backgrounds that included knowledge of these cultures or exposure to these types of objects. Thus, the binders of previously gathered cultural and technical information were both time saving and essential to the actual conservation treatment process. As specific problems such as degree of cleaning, consolidation, or loss compensation were presented, the collections curator, Native American advisers, and scholars were consulted. Our best information came when all of these people could meet and work out practical answers together.


Information from conservation efforts can influence aspects of exhibit design and the content of labels. Conservation documentation can also be important during access to collections by curators, researchers, and native peoples. The role of conservation as it relates to the material culture of Native Americans is under reevaluation. To preserve only the physical qualities of objects is not enough. Rather, through greater research and collaboration in aspects of technical study, materials analysis, cultural context, and object history, it is possible to improve the existing documentation and make a contribution to other areas of knowledge.


The author would like to thank R.Gwinn Vivian of the Arizona State Museum for his support and comments on the manuscript. Special thanks are also due to the conservators that worked on the Paths of Life project: Scott Carroll, Jo Willey, Matthew Crawford, Sarah Reiter, Susan Braovac, Landis Smith, Patricia Grewe-Mullins, Rebecca Snyder, and Michelle Hebert.


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NANCY ODEGAARD is head of the conservation section at the Arizona State Museum and a member of the faculty of the University of Arizona. In 1981 she received a master's degree from George Washington University and a certificate in ethnographic and archaeological conservation from the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Canberra, Australia. Since 1984 she has been actively involved in international, national, regional, and tribal preventive conservation training. Her interests include the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic material culture from North and Central America, the technology of indigenous paint in the Southwest, and conservation training. Address: Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz. 85721.

This paper was presented at the 22d annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, Nashville, Tennessee, June 6-11, 1994, in the special general session on artists' intent. Received for review November 1, 1994. Revised manuscript received April 28, 1995. Accepted for publication June 16, 1995.

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Copyright 1995 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works