ARTISTS' INTENT: MATERIAL CULTURE STUDIES AND CONSERVATION
5 INFORMATION AND THE PROBLEM OF BIAS
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.