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)




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.

Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works