REFLECTIONS ON CHANGES IN MUSEUMS AND THE CONSERVATION OF COLLECTIONS FROM INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
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.