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)




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).

Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works