Volume 14, Number 1, Jan. 1992, pp.13-22

Multicultural Participation in Conservation Decision-Making

by Elizabeth C. Welsh, Catherine Sease, Basil Rhodes, Steven C.Brown, and Miriam Clavir

On September 30, 1991, at the WAAC Annual Meeting in Seattle, a panel addressed the topic of multicultural participation in museum collection care. The presentations that were made, along with a selection from the questions and answers that followed, are published here in edited form. Panelists' addresses are on the last page of the article.

Two films that discussed cases of museums and Native American tribes resolving issues of mutual interest were shown: Return of the Sacred Pole (Nebraska Educational Television) and Zuni Repatriation of Human Remains & Religious Objects (The Museum of New Mexico). These videos are reviewed in the Publications-Audiovisual column in this issue of WAAC Newsletter.

Elizabeth C. Welsh:

Challenges to Our Fundamental Conservation Philosophy

Art conservation was built on a belief in the preservation of art and other cultural material, a mission that has seemed so fundamentally worthwhile and desirable that it has not even been considered debatable.

Increasingly, however, we are being confronted by positions that clash with the basic tenets of our discipline and challenge its fundamental philosophy.

It's quite unsettling to hear Dr. Edmund Ladd--a fellow museum professional--state, "Everything for ceremonial, religious and ritual purposes that my culture makes is meant to disintegrate...to go back into the ground. Conservation is a disservice to my culture."l Ladd is Zuni.

And it is painful to hear May Russ, of the Haida, decry the modem technology that is employed to preserve weather-ravaged, antique totem poles as, "in conflict with the natural world and tradition."2

Also voiced may be strongly-felt positions that some cultural material held in museums belongs back in use--sometimes for religious purposes, sometimes for other social purposes. And "back in use" may well mean releasing artifacts into an environment that may reduce their longevity and alter their condition.

At some museums, people connected culturally to artifacts in the collections may want those artifacts cared for in ways different than we have been doing. They may request access to care for objects in their own ways, such as "feeding" them or performing rituals that are incompatible with the artifact care our discipline has taught us is best. People whose cultural heritage is in the collections where we work may want articles stored in special ways--facing east, perhaps. And they may want certain restrictions observed, such as prohibiting the uninitiated from coming into contact with some articles--special kinds of procedures that our buildings and work groups were not designed to provide.

There seems, at times, to be no imaginable way that some of these positions can be accepted by our field or accommodated within the single most basic shared belief in our profession: preservation.

And it is initially very shattering to hear these new voices. Their messages undercut the validity of our past and present work and, at the same time, they spotlight in an embarrassing way the elitism of our field, in which the philosophical positions of other cultures have been looked upon as quaint and sentimental-- and not quite up-to-speed. Conservators are used to regulating their own field, their own ethics and objectives; we have a history of being a tenacious, stubborn discipline that has from the beginning defined our own mission and methods.

There Are Numerous Legitimate Points of View for Cultural History Collection Care

This is also an exciting time of change, and a time for creative thinking, as we face these challenges to the established order. We are seeing now the emergence of a fundamental point not considered at our beginnings: the originating cultures of anthropology and history collections sometimes have ideas and priorities about artifact care and conservation that differ from the classic conservation approach.

Along with informal requests for multicultural participation in collection care have come new laws. Recent state and federal legislation now authorizes Native American control of excavated Native American human remains and funerary objects.3 Additionally, certain kinds of improperly obtained artifacts held in museums can be sought for repatriation. The physical impact on museum collections as a result of these new laws will be substantial. Certain classes of artifacts will be inventoried, review of collection materials by claimants will be accommodated, and some items will be prepared for repatriation.

Museums have been forced by these laws to recognize different philosophies about collecting and collection care than that which has been the foundation of our work.

Rethinking Conservation's Purposes and Revising Our Approach to Collection Care

The conservation of anthropology and history collections may be on the verge of redefining its mission. I think that it is clear that we must make a significant shift from regarding our views in the care of museum collections as "the last word;" as the most sophisticated and advanced philosophy.

No one knows, yet, how divergent--even conflicting--views about the conservation of cultural material will be reconciled. The purpose of this panel is to urge you to see that what we are facing is a stimulating challenge, not a nuisance. In my opinion, conservators should play an active role in this changing scene, not just be left "holding the bag" after curators and boards do as they see fit. I think that we need, as a group, to struggle with how to come to terms with the challenge to our authority--not by insistently defending our outlook, nor by instantly capitulating to new voices, but by steady listening, discussing, and hard thinking about our objectives in curating and conserving cultural history materials in museums.

Conservation is a field of expertise which will unquestionably remain important, even if, in some cases, conservation is regarded as an option rather than as an automatic course. We have accumulated over the last decades a great deal of knowledge about how materials deteriorate, and we continually refine our ability to observe and analyze objects and accurately assess how to make them last longer for a multitude of purposes.

We have entered an era in which I believe that we can no longer ignore the values and sensibilities of the people about whom our museums teach and whose heritage our museums have collected. We don't need to have all the answers right away to the problems this new situation poses--pressures are being exerted on our collection care methods that we have not been prepared for. It is, however, a situation that I hope will encourage us to listen, learn, and think deeply about the core purposes of our work.


1. Edmund Ladd, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, NM; personal communication, July 10, 1991. Ladd made a similar statement at the AIC annual meeting in Albuquerque, in the session "Conservation of Sacred Objects," June 5, 1991.

2. From the BBC-TV film, Haida Gwaii, produced by Jeff Goodman and Mike Salisbury.

3. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, Public Law 101-601, is the recent federal legislation. Most states also have pertinent laws.

Catherine Sease:


Let me say, right off the bat, that I don't have any answers. Certainly, plenty of questions, because this is fairly new to us at the Field Museum. To my knowledge, we have been involved with only one repatriation case to date, and this has involved human remains. I don't want to talk about repatriation in the strict sense, restricting it to dealing with just those objects that we give back, because I don't really feel that there is much that conservation has to say about that issue. Certainly, while the objects are still in our collection and are still legally our responsibilities, then we have some control over how they are handled, limiting access to them, and so forth. But once the decision is made that these objects are going to be repatriated, we have little control over what happens to them.

Mitigating Risks Posed by "Feeding" Objects

What I would like to talk about is sensitive ethnographic materials, and this includes interaction with Native American groups in the care and handling of our collections. There are very definitely conservation issues here, and a good bit of conflict. I'm an optimist, and I think the problems are solvable; I don't think for a moment that it's going to be easy, but I think if we all approach the issues involved with open-mindedness and sensitivity, we won't have too much difficulty.

The most concrete example of interaction with Native American groups Liz mentioned earlier--the "feeding" of collections. For those of you who have no experience with ethnographic collections, you may not know what we're talking about. Feeding collections involves ritual ceremonies to provide sustenance to these objects. A mask, for example, may be the embodiment of a god; just like people, it needs food.

We have masks in our collections that have not been fed for 50--60--70 years. To the native groups concerned, this is a very, very distressing situation. So, they want to come in and see these masks and sprinkle cornmeal or tobacco on them, which, at their request, is not ever to be removed. So, if you have 40 masks that have cornmeal or tobacco all over them, it is, from our point of view, irresponsible to return them to general storage. Cornmeal and tobacco are great attractants for pests, and because we have open storage, I'm not eager to introduce pest-attractive material--cornmeal and tobacco, for example--into the collections in general. An immediate reaction would be to isolate the masks in plastic bags. Well, they don't want their masks in plastic bags, because just as the masks need to eat, they need to breathe. So there we are in a dilemma: what do we do with them?

Our particular solution--and we have not implemented this yet; we're still working on it--is to establish a feeding room, which more appropriately will be called a sacred room, where we can provide tight security for the collection in there. We can seal the room to keep pests out, and we will put cabinets there with tight gasketing, although they will have vents so that the air can get in and we don't need to worry that the objects within the case will not be able to breathe. We hope that by keeping our housekeeping up in this area, keeping this area relatively tightly sealed, and limiting access to it, we will be able to solve the problem so that we can meet the needs of the Native American groups whose materials will be stored there, while at the same time maintaining our professionalism, and not putting other collections at risk from pests problems. I personally was delighted when this issue came up, because I've been fighting for closed storage cabinets for 5-1/2 years now, and suddenly the administration is beginning to listen! So this has been beneficial to me in helping all of my collections.

Isolating Certain Sensitive Materials

Closed storage cabinets will also provide us with a means of isolating certain materials. Many Native Americans may not want their sacred objects in a storeroom with materials from their traditional enemies or rivals. Also, they don't want these objects in areas where just anyone coming through the storage facility can have access to them or can even see them. Particularly, women. So this will provide us a means, by isolating that material, of addressing these concerns on the part of Native American groups. Other questions are a little more difficult, although they're not unsolvable, such as the gender problem. Much of this material is not meant to be seen--let alone handled--by women. When we had a group of Hopis come last year and ritually feed some of their masks and material, they did not want them to be handled by women. Fortunately, we had Dave Rasch as an intern, and he was able to do what was needed to get the masks back into storage. But, most conservation labs are predominately female, and this does cause problems. I think there's a great future for any men who want to go into ethnographic conservation! There's always a positive side.

Preservation Ethics May Conflict with Ethics of the Culture of Origin

Where the conflicts really arise--which I don't feel are insolvable, but they are certainly going to cause us to do a lot of thinking and reevaluating--is when a conservation treatment or control is against the ethics of a particular group or groups. Our museum has been inviting groups of Native American elders and religious leaders to come to the museum to help provide us with guidance on our exhibits and our storerooms. Do we have material on display that they do not want on display; that they do not feel is appropriate to be viewed by the general public? After the Hopis' visit, we took 30 or 40 masks off display and put them into storage. We also had a request not too long ago that all of a particular group's peace pipes be separated. We had the pipe bowl in the stem, and they were glued together at some point in their career in the museum, but it is not appropriate for them to be kept that way. So, we are in the process of separating them. Another group has asked that we wrap certain objects in red flannel. To the best of our ability, we are meeting these concerns and following through. It may take us time, but we are doing this.

The conflicts arise when an object needs interventive treatment--let's say there is flaking powdery paint--and it is against the ethics of the cultural group that originated it to consolidate it; it is not part of the creation cycle of that object to preserve it. This is where I see the dilemma, and this is where we are going to spend a great deal of time and effort in the upcoming years in trying to determine how far to go in placing priority on sensitivity to Native American groups, and their concerns, at the expense of our own professional standards as a conservator, or, indeed, the museum's legal responsibilities as a steward for the collection.

Compromise Will Be Necessary

I think that we can meet these concerns sensitively at the same time that we maintain our professionalism as conservators, and maintain our care for the collection. Ethically, I don't think we can stand in the way of having the object properly cared for, if indeed the group concerned feels that it can be done; by ritual feeding, by repatriation, or by whatever means they feel is necessary. These are issues that we as museum professionals are going to have to work on together with Native American groups. It's probably not going to be easy, particularly because every group is different in their needs and concerns.

Compromise is certainly going to be called for on the part of all museum personnel, but I think particularly for conservators. We have been trained very much like doctors: we've got to save the object at all costs; you can't lose the patient--pull in all the heavy equipment and chemicals and whatever you need to do the particular job--and we're going to have to change our attitude about that. I should point out that we're not talking about massive amounts of objects. When the Hopi came in, for example--we have thousands of objects that have come from Hopi--they zeroed in on 40-45 objects. So, we're not talking about completely revolutionizing the way we operate as ethnographic conservators, but we're going to have to develop levels of treatment and attitudes toward objects that we have not had prior to this; we have not been called upon to have before this.

These Are New Challenges, and Collaboration with Native Peoples Will Evolve Slowly

It may well be that this is going to be a slow evolution. As we develop ways of dealing with some of these issues, what we end up doing 5 years from now may be very different from what we end up doing 10 years from now. As we establish dialogues with Native American groups, as we work on these issues, as we talk amongst ourselves, we're going to find, I think, that there's going to be an evolution in our process that will take time. I think it's definitely going to be a learning experience; it may be difficult at times, and it may well be a rocky road from time to time, but if we keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to do what is in the best interest of the collections, I don't think we can go wrong.

Archpriest Basil Rhodes:

Russian Orthodox Church Represented in Archaeological Excavation of Burials

Last summer I received a phone call, out of the clear blue, from an archaeologist, who asked me if I wouldn't please fill in for another priest from the Santa Rosa, California area who couldn't be available to do some reburials at Fort Ross. I said, "Sure, I'd be happy to do some reburials," but I didn't know a thing about what was going on there. When I went there to do the service for the reburial, I got quite an education, just like I'm getting here today. So I'd like to tell you a little something about what went on there, because my viewpoint from some of the questions that we're discussing today is kind of from the other side; it's from somebody that is representing a certain group--a certain ethnic group, if you will--that's had to deal with archaeologists, geologists, and, indeed, art conservators and others, and so I'd just like to tell you what my experience was, and how I felt about what went on.

Fort Ross, a Tricultural Community

In March of 1812, construction began along what would later be called the coast of Sonoma County, California, just north of Bodega Bay. The construction was that of Fort Ross, an outpost of trade and an outpost of empire, flying the flag of the Russian American Company. It was intended to be a provision station, primarily for the vessels of the Russian fur trade. It was never terribly successful. But the fort itself did survive for some time and began to emerge as a tricultural community, from the time of its construction, consisting of Russian, Alaskan Aleut, and native Kashaya Pomo populations. The Russians and Aleuts lived in or around the fort, and the Pomo people--while certainly interacting with the fort people--never really merged with them. Now, the fort only lasted 29 years. However, during that time, of course, people lived there, people were born there, and people died there.

Discovery of the Fort Ross Cemetery

In 1972, they were rerouting Highway 1 through Fort Ross, and they discovered a grave during the course of excavation for the new highway. It caused quite a little stir. People knew that there had to have been a cemetery there, and there was kind of a vague notion of where it might have been located in relationship to the fort, but they didn't really know for sure. The discovery of this grave created a lot of interest. The state of California owns the property that Fort Ross is situated on, but the state had appointed a citizens' advisory committee that advised it as to the disposition of things having to do with Fort Ross. On that advisory committee, there were of course Pomo people who still exist and live in that area; there were representatives of the Russian community, notably, the Russian Orthodox Church; and people who had some interest during the ranch period; that is, after the Russians left and it became a ranch--the families of people who lived on that. This citizens' advisory committee immediately suggested that the best thing they could do concerning this grave, since the bones were found, was to consult the Russian Orthodox Church about what should be done. Russian Orthodox heirarchs advised that the few bones that were discovered there--there were no actual artifacts discovered other than one small baptismal cross--that it would be proper for those bones to be reinterred at a later time. However, they didn't have any problem with the artifacts being looked over and examined, which was done. The remains, after the examination, were reinterred. The baptismal cross, however, was not reinterred with the remains. In fact, Fort Ross makes a lot of money selling replicas of that cross.

Consultation with Descendants Prior to Excavation

So anyway, this confirmed that there was a cemetery there. People had estimated that perhaps as many as 30 or perhaps as many as 50 people had been buried in the Fort Ross cemetery, but it was really a mystery until this last summer, when Dr. Lynne Goldstein, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, expressed an interest to Breck Parkman, who was the regional archaeologist for the State of California Dept. of Parks and Recreation. She wanted to explore the area of this supposed old cemetery, and they both got excited about it. In the initial planning phase of this excavation, they determined that the first vital thing that they ought to do is first contact the local representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the representatives and leadership of the Kashaya Pomo, which they did, before they even started getting their grant funds together. They first contacted the Pomo, who told them, "You can dig there all you want, we don't have any of our people there"--which turned out to be true. It's amazing how living memory really remembers. The Russian Orthodox church then was contacted, and our people had to determine what we thought about excavating the graves. It was asked by the archaeological team whether there would be any theological reason why these graves should not be excavated. The archpriest who was responsible for responding to that request suggested that for the Orthodox Church, there is no difficulty in the exhumation itself. In fact, he said, in Orthodox Christian lands, such as Greece, there is so little arable land anyway, that often the dead are exhumed, the bones cleaned, and then placed in a charnel house. That's not unusual in Greece. In Russia, it's not usual, but there would be no theological problem with it. He also expressed the opinion that since, in the Orthodox faith, prayers for the dead are such an important part of our religious life, that it would not only be appropriate, but it would be absolutely laudatory if we could discover the identities of the people who were buried there by whatever artifacts could be found or whatever kinds of indications there might be, and following that, to remark the graves, if possible, and reconstitute the cemetery following the reinterrment of the remains, along with any artifacts that had been buried with them.

Reburial Followed the Completion of Research

That was also an important consideration: that which has been buried ought to be reburied. But there is no problem with taking it out, looking at it, cleaning it, even restoring it--even conserving it!--but putting it back eventually. No time frame was given for the "eventually." Well, everyone was very happy about this, and the church representatives were especially happy that they had been consulted. For some time it was thought that perhaps 50 graves might be found, but as the team began its work, it was discovered that over 150 graves were there. Due to the high acidity of the soil, not much was left in the way of remains. The coffins were completely gone. A few bones, teeth, baptismal crosses remained; wedding bands, jewelry, beads of various kinds--some very primitive, some very exquisite, some probably coming from Russia or at least from the colony in Alaska, some of Native American Aleut origin. And one very beautiful porcelain brooch, which has a kind of a portrait on it, but it's going to take some work to try to figure out what it is. All of this was studied, analyzed, cataloged--everything that can be done to all these things was done--and then they were reburied. Now I, myself, participated in doing reburial of some 75 sets of remains. And also, of course, some of the artifacts being reburied with those remains. Some of the artifacts, as I said, are going to require some further analysis and photographing and cataloging. But all will be reinterred at the proper time.

"Because of Their Respect for Me I've Got Tremendous Respect for Them."

I got thrown into this thing not knowing anything about what was going on--nothing of the controversies concerning Native American peoples, and perhaps the scientific community, and art conservators, and all of these things--but I just want to share with you a feeling that I have, and I tell you this honestly. When I saw the real concern and real willingness--not only willingness because of some kind of external constraint, but the real heartfelt willingness of this team of professionals desiring to know what is appropriate according to the culture, according to the tradition, and according to the religious sentiments of the descendants of these early Russian pioneers, I was really very overcome, and I was very, very grateful. I left there with a very good feeling, a feeling that these people not only were people that I could work with, but people who, because of their respect for me, I've got tremendous respect for them. And I'm certain that in the future, the relationship--at least in Northern California--between the Russian Orthodox Church and the scientific community, if you will, is going to be very, very good because of the mutual respect that we have for one another, due to this project.

Related reading

Goldstein, Lynne & Keith Kintigh: "Ethics and the Reburial Controversy," American Antiquity, 55(3), 1990, pp. 585-591.

Steven C. Brown:

In listening to various comments that have been spoken today, it seemed to me that a number of interesting ideas have come out.

The Points of View of Native Peoples about Collection Care in Museums Are Evolving

One of the most important ones, I think--and it has been spoken by everyone here--is that this is a period of evolution in the relationships between members of this fairly small and somewhat isolated professional community and those people with whom we come in contact. And I think it's new in a very real way to both sides; the kinds of educations that are taking place on both sides of the issue are very important ones. Among other things, the point of view of native people--or of originating cultures, whether they're native or any other--is also an evolving one because of the amount of time for which there has been either a deliberate or a kind of de facto distance from the process. Native people have been excluded from a voice in these matters for so long that they really have not totally developed their policy, so to speak, and it's something that is going to be changing. As was said, what we do today or tomorrow will be very different five or ten years down the line, as a result of this constant evolution. Although I started professional life, though I might not have thought of it that way back then, within a museum, I've actually spent more time living in native communities than I have working in museums. I think that makes me much more consciously aware of certain kinds of sensitivities that one has to deal with than I might have been otherwise; it's just really a matter of familiarity. As groups of people come together who have not had the opportunity to work together in the past, we are becoming aware of new sensitivities.

Accommodating Cultural Sensitivities Differs Little, in Principle, from Accommodating New Scientific Findings

As was stated in the Field Museum example, rather than looking at these kinds of situations and these contacts as a whole new set of problems, as was the case with the storage cabinets, it can be a route to new kinds of solutions to problems that we might not have put together in the same bucket, so to speak. In all cases, we should bear in mind those kinds of unanticipated benefits.

Over the years, the development of the conservation profession has been, in part, a matter of becoming aware of new sensitivities and advances in the understanding of chemistry and the interaction of all kinds of elements and gases--and what have you--that fifty or a hundred years ago were unknown or unrealized at their time. The concerns of originating peoples are merely a new kind of challenge, and a new kind of sensitivity to become aware of. If it's more of a spiritual than a chemical nature, it's only a change of form--it's part of the same functional universe that we all live in. So, if such a problem as cornmeal in a storage area can become a positive benefit overall to a collection within a museum, as seems to have been the case at the Field Museum; why, all the better. It's a matter of attitude and how we look at it.

Native People's Attitudes Vary Widely Concerning Sacredness and Religious Items, the Value of Museums, and the Necessity for Artifact Repatriation

Another thing that I wanted to address that also has been mentioned before, and I just want to underscore, is the variety of people that--even in this part of the country, let alone in the whole country or the whole continent--the museum community has to deal with. "Native people" is no more of a generalized group than any other. My area of familiarity has been, roughly, from this state, northward along the coast. Even within that area, which culturally is relatively contiguous, there is a fairly broad variety of attitudes concerning sacredness and religious items and, of course, if you go outside of that area, you compound that variety many times over. Native people in the area around Puget Sound and partly north across to what is now Canada have a very much different point of view regarding artistic cultural objects--artifacts, if you will; masks and what have you--than do people farther north, or, pretty generally, up the northern part of the coast where, in a certain sense, masks and things like that are much more of a social expression than they are strictly religious objects. In the Seattle Art Museum's case, we've found that by opening with a very cooperative and responsive attitude toward native people's concerns, we, as other institutions have been, were pleasantly surprised by people's attitudes. They truly believe in the value of museums as public institutions and in public access museums as a method of educating the general public about who they are; something which would not exist if all those objects were ensconced in private native homes. Many broadly thinking and still very traditional native people are of the opinion that their art is a very living cultural situation in which objects that have left for various reasons and become part of museum collections are of great benefit in education, and all the while, they have been producing new objects. Those earlier objects have not been lost in a permanent sense, but have been relocated and subsequently replaced within their own home cultural context, so that in many cases--again we can't generalize--but in many, many cases, they don't feel that there is any advantage to repatriating these old objects. In certain other cases, overall a very small percentage, there might be some situations where the object is considered central, and its loss is a very real one and very important one. So again, I just want to underscore the differences and the variety in attitude that persons will encounter.

Miriam Clavir:

I am very interested in how we, as conservators, arrive at solutions to situations that challenge our conservation ethics.

Who Determines What Is Important about a Particular Object?

To give an example of one of these situations, at the Museum of Anthropology, we have a policy of loaning back to the artists contemporary Northwest Coast pieces from our collections for use at ceremonies or events--a situation which can easily result in physical damage to the objects 1. Although we can take measures to minimize the damage to the objects, this approach does not deal at all with what is often a part of these situations: a basic clash of different viewpoints regarding what is important about the object--the museum conservation point of view and the First Nations points of view. (First Nations is one of the terms used in Canada by Aboriginal peoples). Conservators who work with objects originating from other societies have to come to terms with the fact that the conservation point of view, while very valid for what is being called Euro-American or Euro-Canadian culture, is not the only valid point of view for these objects. And our codes of ethics, naturally, look at what is valid essentially from the conservation point of view.

What Do Our Conservation Codes of Ethics Reveal about Our Culture?

We look at the artifacts that we conserve as being part of the material culture of the societies which made them. What happens when we look at our codes of ethics as products, as artifacts, of the society which made them? In other words, I want to consider the principles of conservation not from our usual angle of "these represent truths about right conservation behavior which we believe in," but from the angle that they are assumptions of our particular Euro-American or Euro-Canadian society. You may respond that these shouldn't be looked at as merely assumptions, because modern conservation is tied into what to us are provable scientific laws; for example, ultraviolet radiation will promote photochemical degradation. Here I would say that, even so, these are not the kinds of laws which give us moral rights over another society's way of looking at the world.

One major difference between the American code2 and the Canadian code of ethics3 is that the American code does not state anywhere why we preserve works of art and other cultural property. As Liz Welsh said in her presentation, our mission has seemed to us so fundamentally worthwhile and desirable that we haven't considered debating it.

For Whose Benefit Are We Preserving Museum Objects?

My first question is: For whose benefit are we preserving these objects? This is a major question which has been raised by the desire and actions of First Nations to have control over past material heritage originating in their communities that now is in museums.

The immediate answers of "We are preserving these collections in public trust, for our society or country as a whole, for future generations," while all true, does not acknowledge that lumping everyone in the same bag--the public, our society--favors those in the dominant group of that large society, and that museums have throughout their history been either for, or run by, that dominant group, particularly the educated and the wealthy sector of it. So we should look closely at one of our assumptions: that by preserving these collections for "the public," we are benefiting the originating communities as much as we are benefiting ourselves.

"The Integrity of the Object" Is Under Attack within the Museum as Well as from the Outside"

Second question: Is the importance of the conservation of the "integrity of an object" a universal truth, or is it an assumption of our particular Western perspective?

To digress a moment on this topic, even within that Western perspective, this basic ethic of conservators is under increasing pressure from others in the museum field who are balancing the cost of conservation with increasingly diminished financing for museums. They are also often part of evaluating the success of a museum by the number of visitors it attracts, and attracting these visitors by more exciting, entertaining, and sometimes interactive exhibits. Where conservation used to be an important part of being able to present to the visitor a unique, "authentic" object, now the trend is toward giving the visitor an "authentic" experience. Conservation may be viewed as an obstacle in the way of this experience (for example, "Do Not Touch"), as well as being viewed as an undesirably high cost item in the museum's budget.

Conservators are being challenged about our beliefs both from within the museum community and from without. Codes of ethics tend to universally-applicable generalizations and idealized codes of behavior and practice. The situations ethnographic conservators face are complex, and I find I need more detailed guidance than the codes presently offer.

Back to considering the integrity of the object--what does integrity mean? The American code says that all professional actions of the conservator are governed by unswerving respect for the aesthetic, historic, and physical integrity of the object. The Canadian code adds conceptual integrity, and although it doesn't define conceptual, it is meant to include the non- physical, contextual attributes of the piece--its symbolic importance to its society, for example. It is this word that recognizes the importance of allowing First Nations ceremonies in museum storerooms and exhibition galleries, which may involve smudging pieces with smoke or feeding masks, for example.

Our Codes of Ethics Need to Provide More Guidance

This brings up a third and key question which I want to look at in the examination of our codes of ethics and practice: How do we make decisions when conceptual integrity conflicts with, or offers some risk to, preserving the other integrities of the object? I think that conservators have a very strong belief in the rightness of preserving the physical being of objects, and we do everything we can to slow deterioration. This is what we would like to achieve in our ethics and our practice. Our day-to-day reality, however, often requires compromise, but our codes don't give us enough details or discussions on how to balance off, for example, the demands of a multifaceted museum operation, or the requests of Native people to use their objects in ceremonies or have them back in their home communities.

Yet--to digress for a minute on use--we have accepted use as part of what happens to objects in several other areas. Architectural conservators do ethical work, even though the buildings will be used; archival and library conservators do ethical work, even though the documents and bound materials may be used. Where is ethnographic conservation situated on the continuum when, as the Canadian code says, it is the responsibility of conservators "to strive constantly to maintain a balance between the need of society to use a cultural property, and the preservation of that property"?

I think that those of us who are ethnographic conservators have to think deep thoughts about use of and access to objects, in relation to our gut reaction toward preserving the physical materials above all else. We and our colleagues have to rethink whether museum conservation is the only ethical conservation accepted by our profession for objects which come from other people's heritages. In addition, how would other practice be integrated in a non-conflictual way into a museum? To give you an example of another way of approaching preservation, a Six Nations woman said to me that, for her, the maintenance and repair of pieces such as wampum belts by the elders, or those who have the right to do this work, which includes the rituals associated with the work, is the type of conservation she would like to see practiced in her community museum, because the pieces are preserved as the living tradition is preserved and passed on through the generations.

Our Profession Should Recognize the Points of View of Originating Peoples

The Canadian Code of Ethics says that the purpose of conservation is to study, record, retain and restore the culturally significant qualities of the object with the least possible intervention. What museum culture says is culturally significant may not be what the originating people say is significant. I should add, though, that there may be many different points of view expressed in any community.

I hope that our codes, while based in the conservation point of view, will acknowledge the validity of the points of view of the originating peoples with regard to preservation and cultural significance. I hope, too, that our codes can be expanded to give us clearer guidelines on negotiating the limits and extensions of ethical conservation practice concerning objects from other cultures.


1. Clavir, Miriam; Elizabeth Johnson; and Audrey Shane: "A Discussion on the Use of Museum Artifacts by Their Original Owners," pp. 80-89 in Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnological Materials, Canadian Conservation Institute, 1030 Innes Road, Ottawa K1A OM8, Canada.

2. American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: AIC Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, revised 1979, amended 1985. Available from AIC, 1400 16th Street NW, Suite 340, Washington, DC 20036.

3. IIC-Canadian Group and The Canadian Association of Professional Conservators: Code of Ethics and Guidance for Practice for Those Involved in the Conservation of Cultural Property in Canada, 2nd edition, 1989. Available from IIC-CG, Box 9195, Ottawa K1G 3T9, Canada.



How do many of the native groups feel, if you can generalize, about the use of replicas in museums and repatriating the original, and how does the museum community feel about it?

Steven C. Brown:

As far as the people themselves using a replica in lieu of the original, or vice versa, the former is what I have seen more commonly on the Northwest Coast. There are a wide variety of examples of that, but I myself have been involved in some replication projects that actually came about at the request of native groups.

Replication of Totem Poles and House Posts in an Alaskan Native Community

For example, in the Wrangell area--Wrangell, southeast Alaska-- there was a long history which can be documented photographically, going back over 100 years, of the replacement of certain significant large monuments--totem poles, if you will--that had deteriorated or for some other reason been damaged over time and were replaced within the traditional cultural context.

The most recent replication project that I was involved in was prompted, in part, by the damage to a particular totem pole dating from about 1896 which blew down and smashed to pieces in a storm in 1978. That had the effect of focussing an effort in that area to replicate the remaining poles in that community, which numbered about ten, that had not previously been replaced. In other instances, and in other communities, the prevailing tradition has been that a pole was erected to commemorate a particular event--be it a marriage, a death, a house raising, or what have you--and when that was done and the subsequent potlatch and payment of witnesses and validation of the event was complete, then it was often thought that the most natural life of the object itself did not involve any kind of intervention. But there are a handful of examples of pieces that have been replaced over time within the culture originating them.

We replaced poles that were subjected to two different kinds of deterioration. In the case of the outdoor poles, like the one that fell in the storm, it was felt that the presence of those objects within the community was important enough to maintain their existence in physical form in the community. Some of that, of course, was prompted in part by the fact that they've been there as a part of tourism, and there was certainly that faction within the native group that organized to do this effort. But also, the more traditionally minded people felt that as a source of pride and identity, it was important that they survive as well, an objective which would not be served in quite the same way if they were allowed to fall and eventually disappear completely, which, of course, is what happened to others of them. So on both sides of that point of view, it was thought best to replace these poles.

The other type was a set of house posts1 that were original posts carved in the late 18th century that had been preserved by the native people themselves within the house, up until a Civilian Conservation Corps project of the 1930s, at which time government sponsorship took over. But that was a house open to the public, and those posts were at that point--largely because of a certain amount of exposure to the weather that they received in the early 19th century--quite fragile and subject to wear just from being exposed to touch and what not. So the people decided that the best thing to do would be to carve replicas of the posts, and to house the originals in a more protected environment within a community museum, and allow the replicas to stand in more-or-less the original site within the house, so that they could be seen and touched and appreciated by people involved.

A Vancouver Island Community Requests a Replica from a Museum

The last example that I'll mention is a contact between the American Museum of Natural History and the Mowachaht people of the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where, in 1904, George Hunt, at the request of Franz Boas--George Hunt was a native ethnographer--had collected a whaler's purification house from the area of Yuquot village, purchased at that time from what was believed to be the most appropriate native owner, and relocated in New York. Boas envisioned reconstructing the whole house in a kind of a pseudo-West Coast environment in the prevailing fashion of the day; well, that was never done, Boas left the museum, and it sat there all these years. Some interest developed at the museum in that group of objects, which was mainly carved wooden effigies and some skulls--both whale effigies and what you could call whalers--and a dialogue was established between the museum and the Mowachaht people concerning that. When the contact was first made, of course, the museum people were concerned that perhaps the Mowachaht people would simply want the objects back, and that would sort of end their discussion; but, they were really curious what to do with the purification house. In actual fact, what came forward from the Mowachaht people was a request for a copy of the various objects within this monument to be made to go to Yuquot or Gold River, whichever was to be the site of the cultural museum they hoped to establish, and that would form a centerpiece, so to speak; an object around which they could build to extend knowledge of their culture in their own area, open to the public and to various people. Now, this was a situation where that object is of a high spiritual nature. It was actually a place where a particular family of leaders would go, and rather than being for preparation for traditional whaling, it was actually a site for purifying oneself spiritually to the extent that the whales would come of their own accord to the village. So it was an example of an extremely spiritual object. Consequently, there was evidently some disagreement within the community itself over whether the thing should be brought out in public anywhere, New York or Vancouver Island, and contrasting to that position was the differing viewpoint that there was advantage in making these ideas and these concepts public for the sake of education. No further resolution of this question has been worked out at this time.


1. Herem, Barry: "A Historic Tlingit Artist: The Trail of His Work and Its Modem Re-Creation," American Indian Art Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer 1990), pp. 48-55.

Icons in Graves

What would the procedure have been had icons been found in the graves at Fort Ross?

Archpriest Basil Rhodes:

Russian Orthodox Icons in Burials

If icons had been found, it would have been appropriate for them to have been reburied. We do have a tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church of burying a small icon with the deceased, so that would have been something entirely possible if it had not been for the soil conditions; that could have been found there. We would have felt much better about the icons being reburied with the remains. We would not be so concerned about beads or things of that nature, but an icon is expected to be there until the Second Coming.

For Orthodox Believers, Icons Are Windows to the Heavenly Kingdom

On a broader scale, most museums in this country have at least some icons. And it's probably important for this group to realize how truly sacred icons are to Orthodox believers.

For us, icons are not religious art. They're not even primarily created in order to be looked at, even though that's what we might think their primary function is. They aren't primarily art to be looked at, and not primarily art to be instructive. But they are, according to our tradition and our theology, windows, actually, to the heavenly kingdom. We believe that they are, in themselves, filled with divine grace, and enable the person who approaches them to be in contact with the heavenly realities depicted on those icons. So, for us, they are meant to be venerated, kissed, approached, gotten close to, and even handled. And the problem that museums have is obvious!

Conservation Should Respect Icons as a Living Part of Russian Orthodox Tradition

The Orthodox Church is indebted forever to art conservators and museums for saving so many of our precious sacred icons from the hands of the godless in the Soviet Union, who would have destroyed them. So, we're always going to be happy with you. But there are also other features that need to be investigated, that is, the kinds of materials that go into making up icons. Why is it that the ancient canon or rule of icon painting prohibits the use of non-natural materials? That is, icons are traditionally painted with only materials that occur naturally coming from the earth; it has to do with creation for us, and so restoration ought to take that kind of thinking into consideration. Also, display and lighting of icons also has a strong tradition behind it; electric lights are really not appropriate, and candle light is truly the appropriate kind of light--things of that nature.

The thing that we would be concerned about most of all is just simply respecting icons as something holy and very important to us as a faith, as a people; this is something very much a living part of our tradition.

Steven C. Brown:

A Parallel View Is Held by Some Native American Religious Leaders

Therein we have a really very wonderful, as well as eloquent, primary description of what some of the kinds of things we've been talking about mean to native religious leaders as well. Exactly parallel.

Damage From "Feeding"

What kind of impact will the cornmeal have on the masks, and what should we do if it might cause damage?

Catherine Sease:

Balancing Approaches; Accepting Some Physical Changes

In allowing them to be fed, I think we are accepting that this is a process from which there will be deterioration, undoubtedly, and that is just part of the whole procedure. And by allowing feeding to be done in the beginning, we are saying, "OK--we're going along with this."

We recently had an IMS survey in our building, and the person who was concerned with pest control found it an interesting problem that she had not come across in many other institutions. Her suggestion was that perhaps you can get the native groups to allow you to either microwave the cornmeal before it's brought into the museum, or freeze it.

Steven C. Brown:

We Never Know the "Last Word"

It seems like one of the things that we can all put together from this is to keep in mind that we never know the last word; there's always a new quasi-last word. And whether it's in the case of cornmeal on objects, or whatever, part of the reason those objects have survived to get where they are today is that they were cared for, prayers were said, and cornmeal was put on them; they were looked after. The placement of cornmeal, of course, is but a physical symbol for the conscious transfer of life-force in the form of concentrated mental energy, or prayer, into the objects concerned, nourishing their spiritual sphere.

We all know the examples--and certainly native people do, too--of when objects have died in museums; they turned to dust in museums because, at the particular time, care was inadequate. Just as we all know the example of plants, if you will, where the less healthy specimens, for various reasons, be it lack of nourishment in one sphere or another, physical or spiritual, are the ones which succumb the quickest to the forces of deterioration, be it insect or otherwise.

There are many evolving and newly appearing aspects about artifact care to which we are opening ourselves up--a beautifully evolving educational process.


Elizabeth C. Welsh
Editor, WAAC Newsletter
1213 West San Miguel Avenue
Phoenix, Arizona 85013

Catherine Sease
Div. of Conservation, Anthro. Dept.
Field Museum of Natural History
Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60605

Archpriest Basil Rhodes
Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church
14220 Elva Ave. / Saratoga, CA 95070

Steven C. Brown
Seattle Art Museum, Volunteer Park
1400 E. Prospect
Seattle, Washington 98112

Miriam Clavir
Museum of Anthropology, Univ. of B.C.
6393 N.W. Marine Drive
Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1A7

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Timestamp: Thursday, 11-Dec-2008 13:02:29 PST
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