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)




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.

Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works