JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 99 to 107)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 99 to 107)



ABSTRACT—Museums housing collections from indigenous peoples are changing their role and direction vis-à-vis the communities that originated their collections. Such changes mean new ways of working in museums and new demands placed on the collections. The author analyzes why these new directions represent challenges to conservation ethics, practice, and values and situates these challenges in the context of current realities in museum practice. The author concludes that the challenges have influenced the role and outlook of ethnographic conservators as well as their views on what is significant to preserve, who is involved in preservation, and how it is done.

RÉSUMÉ—Les musées qui abritent des collections d'objets des peuples indigènes sont en train de changer leur rôle et de modifier leur approche vis-à-vis des communautés d'où ces collections proviennent. Ces changements impliquent de nouvelles façons de travailler et de nouvelles exigences à l'encontre de ces collections. L'auteur analyse dans un premier temps les raisons pour lesquelles ces nouvelles orientations constituent un réel défi envers la déontologie, la pratique et les valeurs de la conservation. Il les situe ensuite dans le contexte de la pratique actuelle des musées. Pour terminer, il conclut que ces défis ont influencé le rôle et la perspective des restaurateurs d'objets ethnographiques ainsi que leurs jugements sur ce qu'il est important de préserver, sur les personnes qui s'en occupent et sur la manière dont elles le font.

RESUMEN—Los museos que alojan colecciones de pueblos indigenas estan cambiando su papel y dirección en relacion a las comunidades que originaron sus colecciones. Estos cambios significan nuevas maneras de trabajar en museos y nuevas exigencias puestas en las colecciones. La autora analiza orque estas nuevas direcciones representan retos a la ética, práctica y valores de la conservación. Estos retos son luego situados en el contexto de las realidades prevalecientes en la practica de los museos. La autora concluye que estos retos han influido en el papel y perspectiva de los conservadores etnográficos, asi como tambien en sus puntos de vista acerca de lo que es significativo preservar, quienes son las personas involucradas en esto y cómo se hace esto.


In countries such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, the museum context in which ethnographic conservators work has been undergoing a substantial change. Museums that house collections from indigenous communities geographically related to the museum are particularly affected.1 These museums, which are the focus of this article, are moving away from the presentation of material culture to become places that present living cultures. A major part of this change involves facilitating self-representation by the peoples who originated the collections housed in the museum.

Anthropology museums have always, for better or for worse, been involved in preserving and exhibiting culture. What is radically new is that First Nations are sharing at least some of the power the museum structure has traditionally held. Admittedly, this movement is more common in relation to finite projects such as exhibitions or repatriation requests than in relation to museum operations as a whole. Indigenous peoples are, however, working with and within the museum system to participate in decisions and, increasingly, to have control over how their culture is represented in the museum's work. In addition, First Nations are slowly but increasingly filling the professional staff positions of museums, both at dedicated institutions such as the National Museum of the American Indian and at older major institutions throughout North America, and especially in New Zealand. More and more, museum visitors today are experiencing the voices of living people belonging to an indigenous culture, not just voices from the past or from the academic knowledge of nonindigenous curators.

For a growing number of anthropology museums located in the same country (or province, state, or territory) as the indigenous peoples who created the collections, the traditional cultural triangle of “museums, objects, and collections” (Pearce 1992, 1) has been opened up to include the originators of the objects (Ames 1992). At the same time, new ways of working are being instituted in museums, and new demands are being placed on the collections. For example, consulting or negotiating with representatives of the originating community or seeking the advice of an advisory board or group of elders has become part of arriving at museum decisions. Cultural requests regarding the collection include repatriation; borrowing objects for ceremonies; making storage and display rooms culturally sensitive; conducting rituals in museums and treating sacred/sensitive materials in an appropriate manner; and having increased hands-on access to the collections. Underlying the changes in museums are the fundamental issues of aboriginal rights and First Nations ownership and control of what is or was theirs, issues that are currently being re-examined in the courts and in public opinion in many countries.

These new directions in certain museums have affected the conservation function within the museums. Some of these changes could be seen to challenge the fundamentals of conservation, which developed and continues to mature within traditional museology. This article focuses primarily on the challenges for ethnographic conservators when cultural concerns are seen to be given precedence over the physical preservation of the collections in the museums where they work.


Conservation has developed into a distinct professional field whose area of expertise is the physical preservation of material culture. One characteristic of professionalization is that the practitioners commonly believe that their commitment is to their work and the clients they serve through it; they hold this commitment even though they might change employers. Some conservators see objects as their fundamental clients: “Our loyalty is not owed to our institutions, organizations, or colleagues, but rather to the unique and irreplaceable objects that embody our history, culture and aspirations” (Merrill 1990, 170). Even if the clients of conservation are seen as being people—for example, the public or future generations—conservators view their role as preserving objects for these people. Similarly, a traditional museum is “constituted by its collections” (Pearce 1992, 2). For museums, therefore, the concept of facilitating the preservation of indigenous cultures through supporting their living expression rather than through preserving their material culture represents a profound conceptual change. Some conservators may experience this change as museum collections are being subjected to physical risk in order to serve people today.

These new directions in museums represent other challenges to conventional conservation. Underlying the specifics, they challenge:

  1. The methods and scientific conclusions of conservation as being the guiding practice of a museum. For example, in the American Southwest, culturally sensitive storage can mean allowing fresh air and natural light to reach certain objects. In a major museum in New Zealand, Maori staff place fresh green leaves on objects and display cases for cultural reasons pertaining to remembrance.
  2. The ethics of conservation. Is it ethical for a conservation professional adhering to his or her country's code of ethics to agree to put objects at physical risk in order to facilitate the preservation of conceptual integrity or cultural significance? For example, at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology conservation staff help formulate the agreement procedures for the loan of appropriate masks and blankets for ceremonial use. It is understood that facilitating the loan is the highest priority, even though lending these objects may involve the risk of damage through wear, handling, and poor transportation and environmental conditions.
  3. The authority of conservators as specialists in the storage, handling, and physical care of the museum's holdings. First Nations cultural authorities increasingly are shaping opinions about these matters. In fact, challenges in this area are one aspect of challenges to the authority of the museum as a whole.
  4. The way many conservators work. Conservators in North America, unlike those in New Zealand, typically do not begin a conservation treatment by implementing the appropriate protocols and consulting the originating peoples, even for sacred or sensitive objects.

These four issues affect conservators' daily practice, but even more important, they affect the conceptual framework for conservation. Requests from First Nations, and the development of museums as loci serving their communities or the originating peoples of their collections, challenge traditional concepts of what a museum is. These concepts also underlie basic assumptions in conservation, such as the worth of preserving objects at a distance from their cultures; the worth of preserving objects as physical entities rather than as cultural entities; the importance and perhaps the parameters of the attributes that constitute the integrity of the object; and the validity of science as the preemptive way to seek answers about housing, caring for, and in some cases treating collections. In other words, the challenges to museums test the underlying paradigms of conservation knowledge, which are “deeply imbedded in the socialization of adherents and practitioners. They tell us what is important, legitimate, and reasonable, and tell the practitioner what to do” (Patton 1990, 41).

The following questions further illustrate the conflicts in values that exist in some museums today.


An object's significance can rest in its whole conceptual framework, not just in its physical being. This concept is exemplified by the philosophy of Mabel McKay, a Pomo basket maker who “cannot separate a discussion about the material aspects of her basketry from a discussion about Dreams, doctoring, prophecy, and the ancient basket-weaving rules, since for Mabel these things cannot be talked about or understood separately” (Sarris 1993, 51).


Museums usually define the “unique character and significance”(AIC 1995, 23) of an object according to the meaning researched by curators for that object and its place in the museum system of values (rarity, condition, attribution, authenticity, etc.). The postmodern “living” museum may attempt to give priority to the originating culture's system of values (e.g., following cultural protocols for sacred or sensitive objects). It follows that in these museums, cultural needs to use an object and culturally appropriate maintenance of an object may take precedence over standard museum conservation procedures. Should non-Pomo conservators respect cultural significance by adjusting their normal way of working knowing that Mabel McKay would look after her baskets in the following manner: “She told me how to feed the baskets with water once a month, and she told me how to pray, what songs to sing” (Sarris 1993, 61)? Would such practice in any case be achievable or culturally appropriate?

It should be noted that the conservator here is involved in a complex situation that includes—in addition to what is usually a multinational collection and constraints of time, budget, and distance—further dichotomous elements. The museum needs to consult proactively on museum work concerned with First Nations, but at the same time the question of First Nations needs and initiatives, not just museum agendas, drives relevant projects. In addition, the baskets do not appear to be in the category most emphasized in discussions of cultural significance—sacred or sensitive objects—but they do appear to have important ritual considerations. Whether the conservator arrives at her decision based on practical or on theoretical considerations, her decision and process will also reflect how she has balanced preserving “conceptual integrity”—the Pomo cultural values she has heard about—with conserving physical integrity—a fundamental conservation value her training has prepared her for.


The Canadian code of ethics for conservators states: “All actions of the conservator must be governed by a respect for the integrity of the property, including physical, historical, conceptual, and aesthetic considerations” (IIC-CG and CAPC 1989, 5). The 1981 Guidance for Conservation Practice published by the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation states, “Conservation is the means by which the true nature of an object is preserved” (UKIC 1981, 1). In a scientific mode of thinking, integrity represents truths about the object such as its present condition and the materials it is made of and may include attributes such as the date and the maker. In general, a conservator's reasoning about integrity is based on supporting physical evidence present in or on the object as well as on documentation.

Many, however, believe that integrity is a matter of interpretation rather than of attributes that are integral to the object. It has been argued, for example, that even proven facts such as date and maker are not significant truths about the object, as they have no meaning unless interpreted (Handler 1992; Pearce 1992). Interpretation means that cultural values are superimposed and the result read as the truth.

The following example illustrates this argument. In 1993 the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology (MOA) agreed to loan masks to a First Nations family for use in a potlatch, in part because the objects were sturdy and dated from the middle of this century. However, if these same Northwest Coast objects were in equally good condition but had been made in 1825 or 1790, they would be among a very few objects from that period that have survived; it is doubtful that MOA would have lent them for use in a dance. The date in this case was given value as a relative concept rather than as a fact.

These questions about the nature of “integrity” reflect back on the larger question of how a conservator proceeds when working on an object from another culture when the values of the originating culture are in apparent conflict with the values of conservation.


New purposes for museums mean change, perhaps adding a layer of difficulty to acceptance by the conservation profession, whose mission is essentially to preserve against change. (“Preservation against change” is also a value found in traditional museology, which often presented cultures in a frozen time frame referred to as the “ethnographic present,” which was considered to represent the “authentic” culture.)

Cultural meanings do change, however, and to give precedence to cultural integrity means accepting that there may be different “truths” at different times. An example has been given of a canoe that was originally created as one of many utilitarian objects but now has a different cultural significance for the people because it is the only one left (Phillips 1991, cited in Clavir 1992, and Feest 1995).

In accepting that cultural meanings change, conservators are being asked not only to value the less tangible attributes of an object but also to realize the acceptability of continuing process and the validity of a more abstract, shifting context than is usually found in conservation. This new conceptual demand on conservators parallels, in many ways, the changing nature of museums and the role of collections in them.


The challenging context for conservation ethics and practice poses a fundamental question: For ethnographic conservation, which parameters are and are not appropriate for collections today, whether they are housed in traditional museums or in postmodern, living museums? The answers are sought in part in whole profession's acceptance or rejection of these developments and their implications.

Challenges to fundamental conceptual frameworks are often received as adversarial by those who believe in the value of the framework. Indeed, they may well be presented as such by a challenger who perceives an entrenched and hostile system. Core emotions as well as core beliefs and intellectual arguments may be involved for all participants. This is one reason why it is valuable for conservators to take part in face-to-face discussions with indigenous peoples from different cultures on conservation issues: the whole person is involved, and points of view can be appreciated as well as understood.

The appropriate solution or ethic may evolve slowly and apply differently to different situations. In addition, the sanctioned way to proceed may depend considerably on developments in other arenas, such as legal and moral claims regarding ownership and, in Canada, legal developments concerning aboriginal rights. In spite of these complexities and even while sorting out the ethical dilemmas, the following observations could guide reflections on the current, fluid situation.


In reality, museums make decisions every day that have the potential to compromise the physical safety of the collections. It is useful to remember that it is not just in the area of indigenous collections that conservators work with these challenges to ideal conservation practice. For example, there may be touchable objects in a museum, loans to venues without the best environmental conditions, rentals or events in gallery space that involve bringing food, drink, or flowers into the exhibition areas, or simply a lack of funding or lack of will to make good storage conditions a top priority. Historically, North American museums have not been exemplary in the standard of care accorded collections of Native American and Canadian material culture.

In addition, permitted use of objects in museum collections is not a new phenomenon posed only by requests from indigenous peoples. Many museums have enviable objects designated “touchable” as part of their collections. The Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, has a mid-16th-century Ming vase that visitors can touch in a well-designed permanent exhibition; the vase has not suffered damage (Kerr 1995). To cite other cases, conservators accept that historic library and archival material is used, although unlike museum loans for potlatches, it is usually handled within the building and under conservation guidelines. Conservators of contemporary art accept that the living artist may elect to put an object at risk during an exhibition as part of the artistic intent, and copyright laws in many countries would support the artist. Architectural conservators accept major changes to the physical integrity of buildings to conform with fire codes and new use patterns. Military museums provide a perhaps less known but very interesting example. In England and Canada, there are examples of temporary loans of objects for use, such as donated medals temporarily lent back for remembrance ceremonies. It is also common for museums housing regimental regalia to lend back ceremonial items for annual regimental rituals.

All the key words are here: ceremony, use, loan for use, negotiation with the originator of the work, the originator having the right not only to participate in decisions but also at times to make decisions regarding the object.


The evidence provided by daily museum practice is also a basis on which First Nations people challenge museums. Today as in the past, museum practice often continues to be far from the ideal represented in museum theory. Questions can easily be raised about why many storage rooms are overcrowded; why the current First Nations' name for their home or people often is not represented in the permanent exhibitions or the catalog records; why insect infestations still occur even though proper procedures and monitoring are recognized; why even well-known museums are not able to maintain good environmental conditions for all their collections or to have completed earthquake mitigation measures in areas where they are necessary. If museums have not acted upon the expert knowledge they have had for years, why should one trust the viability of the museum enterprise? When First Nations people from a particular community come to see objects from their own heritage, there is considerable chance that they will also see failings in museum practice.


Even if a museum's goals or a conservator's goals are very different from the goals of the First Nations community or individual, common ground may still be found. One should not assume a false dichotomy by posing object conservation against cultural preservation.

Deborah Doxtator, a Native Canadian, comments that partnerships between aboriginal peoples and non-native Canadian museums are hindered “by the fact there is no one shared goal. There are instead parallel goals” (Doxtator 1994, 22). Even parallel goals, though, are positive if the result adequately serves the different participants. For example, the use of dust covers in the storage room for culturally sensitive objects in the Museum of New Mexico allows cultural privacy for the objects and viewers while representing sound conservation practice. The U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia, has both a repatriated collection of older potlatch regalia and a separate contemporary potlatch collection that community members can borrow and use; conservators would agree with this approach.

Finally, First Nations people have indicated that they want the best standard of care and conservation accorded to their objects that are housed in museums (Matas 1993). Again, conservators would agree. Leona Sparrow, a councillor for the Musqueam band on whose territory the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology stands, supports this statement and adds the proviso that conservation measures must not compromise the cultural integrity of the items or the community's ability to access them (Sparrow 1995).


At least one code of ethics for conservators states that First Nations have a deciding say in their material cultural heritage even when it is no longer legally in their ownership. The following passage is reprinted with permission from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value:

The indigenous heritage of Maori and Moriori … is inseparable from identity and well-being and has particular cultural meanings.

The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of our nation and is the basis for indigenous guardianship. It recognizes the indigenous people as exercising responsibility for their treasures, monuments, and sacred places. This interest extends beyond current legal ownership wherever such heritage exists. Particular knowledge of heritage values is entrusted to chosen guardians. The conservation of places of indigenous cultural heritage value is therefore conditional on decisions made in the indigenous community, and should proceed only in this context. Indigenous conservation precepts are fluid and take account of the continuity of life and the needs of the present as well as the responsibilities of guardianship and association with those who have gone before. In particular, protocols of access, authority, and ritual are handled at a local level. General principles of ethics and social respect affirm that such protocols should be observed (ICOMOS 1993, Sec. 2).


The following statement reflects a traditional conservation viewpoint, one that undoubtedly was accepted by most conservation professionals at the time it was written in 1986: “The conservator's duty is to take all possible precautions to prevent or minimize damage to collections and to oppose any situation, whether active or passive, that may cause or encourage any form of deterioration. The welfare of the object takes precedence over all other considerations” (Ward 1986, 9).

One short decade later, a conservation professional in a museum working with cultural protocols established by the originators of a particular object or collection might write instead: “The conservator's duty is to take all possible precautions to prevent or minimize damage to collections within a particular situation. The conservator's responsibility is to give information (for example, risks, options, conservation ethics, and procedures) and offer to take action regarding any situation, whether active or passive, that may cause or encourage any form of physical deterioration of material heritage. While conservation information and intervention consider the physical welfare of the object and are based in science, what is appropriate to do is based in a larger context in which the originators of the objects or their descendants have a key role.”

This statement does not negate the conventional paradigm, as seen by conservators, for what is significant to consider in conservation decisions, but it does change the emphasis so that the larger context is acknowledged as primary. It enlarges as well the accepted concept of a multidisciplinary team having responsibility for conservation decisions; the team includes cultural representatives as well as other professionals. The statement maintains the conservator's professional position as the expert in the science and scientific techniques of conservation of cultural property, but his or her responsibility lies in using this knowledge to make others aware in particular case situations, rather than assuming that this knowledge dictates the most appropriate way to proceed.

This statement relinquishes, in keeping with the postmodernism of the past decade, the authority of conservation science as the de facto overriding decision maker in the preservation of material culture, at least that from peoples not of the museum's culture. In addition, it relinquishes the tone of moral authority that, at least in Canada in the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s, tended to be expressed with conservation guidelines.

These changes reflect similar changes in the curatorial areas and administration of many anthropology museums. It remains to be seen whether the new directions in ethnographic conservation in these museums are appropriate to the evolution of the conservation field as a whole.


Many of the ideas for this paper were originally presented at a colloquium titled “Native American Collections: Preserving Objects versus Preserving Culture,” at the Institute of Fine Arts, Conservation Center, New York University, April 28, 1994.


1.. The following terms are also used in relation to indigenous peoples referred to in this article: Native Americans, First Nations, First Peoples, and aboriginal.


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MIRIAM CLAVIR received an honors B.A. in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Toronto and a master of art conservation from Queen's University. She has worked in conservation at the Royal Ontario Museum and for Parks Canada in Ottawa and Quebec City and since 1980 has been the conservator at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. She teaches courses in preventive conservation and lectures in museum principles and methods for the UBC Department of Anthropology. Address: 6393 N.W. Marine Dr., Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z2, Canada.

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