ARTISTS' INTENT: MATERIAL CULTURE STUDIES AND CONSERVATION
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.