ARTISTS' INTENT: MATERIAL CULTURE STUDIES AND CONSERVATION
3 NONTANGIBLE INFORMATION
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.