WAACNewsletter
Volume 17, Number 3 .... September 1995

The Conservator's Approach to Sacred Art


This topic has been approached as a forum: each author, a conservator, has written independently from her/his own perspective. It is interesting to note that similarities have emerged in the articles, for example, on concerns such as cultural significance, respect, and the meaning of "sacred". The authors also have expressed individual viewpoints grounded in different experiences, conservation disciplines, geographical regions, and cultural perspectives.

The first five articles first appeared in the Study Series of the ICOM-CC, June 1995, and are reprinted with its permission. The sixth article, written for the forum but not printed because of time constraints, fortunately joins the others here.


Vicki Heikell, Maori Paper Conservator, National Library of New Zealand: Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, Te Whanaua Apanui tribal descent.

What is sacred art? Who determines what art is sacred? For what reasons do they decide art is sacred?

As a Maori person, I prefer not to use the term sacred as this often suggests works are related to a Judeo Christian religion or mythology, works not linked to indigenous peoples. I prefer to view sacred (in Maori terms) as culturally significant. Culturally significant Maori works should be decided by Maori people. This seems to be a reasonable and logical view to take. However in our colonial past acknowledged 'experts' have often determined what is important about Maori people from historical (colonial), and aesthetic (colonial) considerations.

Traditionally those things seen as sacred are carvings and meeting houses which can be readily identified as part of a unique 'other' culture. While Maori people would not argue that these things are indeed significant, it is also true that Maori people view contemporary works as culturally significant because they demonstrate and illustrate the history of interaction between Maori and Pakeha (European New Zealanders). Non Maori people do not often consider these works as being culturally significant to Maori people. Perhaps it is because contemporary things are not 'traditional', therefore cannot be 'sacred'.

As a paper conservator, I have been part of many Maori ceremonies relating to works on paper. Ceremonies have been conducted because a particular iwi acknowledge the work as being culturally significant to them. The work may have been written by an ancestor, may depict an ancestor, may tell a story of an ancestor, or may relate a history of a tribal area. These ceremonies involve the same commitment, and command the same respect by Maori people as they would when dealing with 'traditional' treasures such as carvings and cloaks. As a Maori paper conservator I work in Maori communities promoting preventive conservation of works on paper, and photographic materials. I carry out surveys of collections on marae, and provide remedial treatments on these works. In doing this work I acknowledge the customary rights and 'ownership' of these works. This means treatment decisions are based on priorities of the community.

What ethical dilemmas do I face? Where there may be ethical considerations, as a conservation professional, I must overcome this by providing all the options to Maori people. This takes the form of workshops aimed at raising awareness of conservation and the reasons for it. By providing a conservation education programme, I then give Maori communities an overview of what conservation is, and why we conserve things. When it comes time to make decisions, Maori people have all the options before them, and are able to make informed decisions. If after all the information has been given people choose not to have their works conserved then you should step back and let the 'owners' decide the future of their works. Always ask the question: why do you want something conserved? For if the people it relates to no longer feel it is necessary, then why do you? In order to develop an appropriate approach to conservation you must have dialogue and a partnership with the people who have cultural ownership of a work. This in turn builds trust between the cultural owners and the conservator.

It is also patronizing to assume that indigenous people necessarily believe that all their works should complete a natural cycle and be allowed to degrade and eventually return to the soil. Like other people, Maori wish to keep records of their achievements and history. Colonization brought new ways of record keeping, and Maori have adapted to new methods of communication: paper, pen, photograph. Maori people perceive the use of these media in a different way from other people which means that we as conservators may need different ways to approach the same conservation problem.


Dean Whiting, Maori Buildings Conservator, New Zealand Historic Places Trust: Pouhere Taonga, Te Whanau a Apanui tribal decent.

The conservation of Maori Buildings has developed in New Zealand out of both a cultural base and a European conservation philosophy. Maori history is carried in material culture but also in spiritual and cultural mediums. They are all dependent on one another and important to sustaining Maori as a people. To conserve the material culture requires an understanding and participation in the culture itself to ensure the maintenance of all values and relationships significant to an object or structure.

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust / Pouhere Taonga has been able to develop an approach to conserving the built history of Maori, with Maori. A programme began in the 1980's providing conservation workshops to Maori communities carrying out restoration of ancestral buildings and structures. The professional conservators involved found they had to recognize and preserve the relationship Maori people had to their cultural material as well as retain the material information held in the structures, sites, and objects. The exchange of ideas and approaches started the development of a conservation process that Maori could control and utilize. This required the formal training of Maori individuals in the technology of conservation to enable them to interact and develop approaches with Maori communities.

Today there are Maori people working in conservation that have acquired the qualification of conservator. These conservators are now being asked by their people to help define the peculiar mix of cultural preservation and conservation philosophy to produce policy and charters that will help guide conservation within tribal and national contexts. The conservation of Maori cultural material has therefore found a degree of acceptance and relevance that will continue as long as Maori have a role in the development, decision making, and implementation processes.


Miriam Clavir, Conservator, UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada.

Conservation codes of ethics in many countries refer to the goal of respecting and retaining the culturally significant qualities of the objects and works of art in collections. For Canadian as with other ethnographic museums, the authority to define which qualities are culturally significant is being recognized as belonging first to the originators of the objects, the First Nations, rather than to the museum or art curators and catalogues.

It should be noted that important cultural significance may well be attached to pieces which in museums have been called "utilitarian", as well as to those considered "sacred". In one Canadian example, a particular canoe was designated as very important to its originating community because it was now the only one left. Personal significance also commands respect: a man's tools or a woman's utensils may have had prohibitions as to who could touch, view, or use them; the originating culture may wish these traditions to be carried on. It is often emphasized that objects in collections today are still part of the identity of living cultures who actively continue to use and pass on to their children the cultural knowledge which contextualizes the objects, which restores the objects' cultural significance.

Conservation codes of ethics state the obligations for an ethical relationship between the conservator and the owner of a work. For works which are indeed 'sacred', 'potent', or 'culturally significant', whichever the appropriate term is, conservators must recognize the dimensions of both moral ownership and current legal ownership.

The following points, then, require consideration:

1. Objects which museums have not traditionally categorized as "sacred" and "art" may need to be regarded with the same respect accorded to those pieces.

2. If the ultimate goal of "proper care and conservation" includes preserving cultural significance, then conservators need to include prominently in their decisions the intangibles associated with an object, expanding conservation's more usual worldview of "proper care" meaning proper physical care.

3. What is scientifically the best way to proceed in the care and conservation of collections may not be the most appropriate way. Conservators are a resource of expertise with responsibilities to collections and to people, but there are those from outside the profession who need to be recognized as having authority in areas relating to the preservation of the object or site. The ICOMOS New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value provides an excellent example of the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples in the preservation of their material heritage.


Nancy Odegaard, Conservator, Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona

In recent years, the development of new legal regulations and changing social attitudes have begun to influence the approach conservators take in the care and treatment of cultural property. Among conservators, much discussion has been directed to the category labeled "sacred" art.

In 1990 the US Congress enacted Public Law 101 601 or The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which legally defines Sacred as "specific ceremonial objects which are needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present day adherents". Under NAGPRA regulations, human remains and associated funerary objects are inventoried, and written summaries of unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony are completed by museums. The documents are distributed to the appropriate indigenous groups. The use of tribally designated cultural advisors is encouraged.

In the United States, for the conservator, an approach to take with possible sacred art may begin with its legal status. Because of NAGPRA certain cultural materials may be:

(1) Claimed (by lineal descendants or tribes if cultural affiliation has been established) and returned. These materials are then no longer under the museum's jurisdiction and further care and preservation of them are not the conservator's responsibility. The conservator may however be asked to:

(2) Claimed and then transferred to another tribal museum repository for curation. Again the conservator may be asked to assist in the above areas.

(3) Claimed, but remain in the museum until a later time. These materials are no longer legally owned by the museum but may be housed there. The care and preservation of these materials should be specified in a Curation Agreement and any conservation treatments should be approved in writing. The conservator may be asked to:

(4) Non-claimed objects or objects claimed but not specified for repatriation. These materials, whether or not they are sacred, may require specialized care that would normally go beyond the expertise of the typical conservator. In addition to the activities mentioned above there may be:

Guidelines that may help conservators design an approach to the care and preservation of sacred or sensitive objects in museum collections include the following:

Conservators should understand the legal status of the collection they are asked to work with.

Conservators should seek the advice and interaction of tribally designated cultural advisors so that they may avoid the use of inappropriate materials or techniques.

Conservators should be cautious in implementing advice that is not specific and with cultural affiliation.

Conservators should be respectful of indigenous traditions that affect the care and preservation of objects.


Marian A. Kaminitz, Chief Conservator, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution in New York

What is sacred art?

Sacred art may be material that is designated or elevated to a special or ceremonial usage for a particular event. That event, however, may occur rarely or it may occur daily. If 'sacred' indicates sensitive, the items may be segregated, restricted, or off limits to certain groups according to gender, level in the community in which the items are used, or age group (pre-pubescent vs. adults or uninitiated vs. initiated), or specific group within the community, such as a ritual society in which designated groups hold specific privileges, rights to perform specific ceremonies, acts, or rites with specific objects, items, and paraphernalia/ regalia.

Sacred art is anything that is imbued with a special significance other than that of the ordinary. Sacred may be viewed by some as that which exceeds the mundane. Or it may be considered to be everything, because everything was created by a Divine being such as 'The Creator' or 'God', and is therefore imbued with the divine, sacred, spark of 'The Creator'. This is as much a function of religious beliefs or life ways held by a particular group as it is of individual ceremonies alone.

Sacred and the interpretation of this term varies from culture to culture throughout the world to such an extent that it can be conceivably all encompassing of everything in a society, or it can be relegated to a very few individual items.

In Christianity, a piece of the true cross, of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, or of the Holy Grail, may be considered more sacred than a printed Bible by some or may be considered equally sacred by others. Or is it that at this time one is more rare than the other and therefore more sacred (art market terms)? If there were only one copy of the Bible or if it were the first copy of the Bible, would it have as high or higher a ranking? Is its worth in terms of rarity the same as its worth in terms of sacredness?

Just as in some communities there are items which have particular levels of sacredness or holiness, so there are levels of restriction of audiences to these items; these therefore become yet another way to designate the 'sacredness' of an item within a society.

Context is yet another term that is important when determining sacredness. Some items such as a particular bowl or spoon are considered sacred specifically when functioning in the context of a ceremony, but at the conclusion of the event, the items are returned into normal service, the everyday functioning of life.

Availability: sacred may mean accessible or inaccessible depending on the culture. Context is an important part of this as well. Does an ecclesiastical robe or vestment or painted triptych of a biblical scene retain its sacredness in a secular context? Once it's in a museum setting, is it unapproachable by inappropriate parties (non clergy)? This question, applied to cultural materials of Native Americans, will probably not have the same answer. These factors vary from group to group and individual to individual.

So what do we do as conservators who have the responsibility of caring for these objects in museums? Well, the first thing we try to do is ask. Since there is no way we can presume to possibly know the intricacies and subtleties of cultures outside of our own, we humbly and respectfully ask those who are of that culture and do know. In the case of Native American cultures at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), there are sometimes many spokespeople and sometimes very few or none at all. At NMAI, we are beginning to put together information obtained from tribal visitors, including appropriate individuals to contact, handling needs for sensitive objects, and traditional care requirements. This will enable us to make informed decisions for our collections and allow us to contact the appropriate people as issues arise.


John C. Moses, Assistant Conservator, National Museum of the American Indian, Delaware/Mohawk

For the purposes of this article, which is intended to deal specifically with the treatment of Native North American materials, sacred art or artifacts may be defined as manufactured or found objects, or collections or combinations thereof, which have been made holy or sacrosanct by virtue of their religious or ceremonial associations, and which continue to fulfill roles of spiritual focus and empowerment within their originating indigenous cultures or descendent populations. The treatment of sacred Native North American art/artifacts presents unique challenges to the conservator, and, indeed, may call into question many previously held culturally-based assumptions regarding a given museum's rights of stewardship or possession over such materials in their collections. Currently in the United States, in addition to the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice, certain pieces of federal legislation, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, may be called upon by conservators as a resource in attempting to determine appropriate courses of action.

A dichotomy exists between Native worldviews and the aims of artifact conservation: the ultimate goal of conservation is ensuring preservation, but Native viewpoints sometimes question why objects are in museums in the first place, and also do not necessarily take preservation of the physical object itself as an absolute necessity. This is especially true in the case of objects which may have been created for a one-time only ritual use, or else may have been intended to enjoy a natural lifespan, with the implicit realization that of course the object would deteriorate on aging. An object's acquisition by a museum, and the museum's subsequent efforts to preserve it are, indeed, in some instances, looked upon by the originating peoples as a perversion of the natural order of things.

This is not to say, however, that as a rule, indigenous cultures are not interested in preserving anything at all. Most cultures worldwide seem to have an interest in preserving at least some items as objects of cultural patrimony and, indeed, many Native North American groups have complex systems of caregiving that are, in fact, analogous to contemporary museum methods of pest control and other aspects of preventive conservation. To cite but two examples, one could mention the near-universal use of burning plant material in the form of a smudge, to ritually fumigate selected objects; and the ritual inspection of the contents of bundles at specific times of the annual cycle or seasonal round, in order to verify their condition.

As a function of the ongoing post-colonial discourse within the context of museums, many non-Native conservators are beginning to express an interest in certain ethical issues surrounding the conservation of Native materials, particularly those of a sacred/sensitive nature. While efforts to increase knowledge and gain understanding unhindered are, within the Western tradition anyway, generally considered commendable goals, it might be argued that a museum is not necessarily the setting in which one can hope to experience or comprehend the significance of sacred objects, either from the viewpoint of those who created them, or from the viewpoint of those for whose benefit they were created and originally maintained.

Objects may be held sacred by virtue of their religious or ritual associations, they may be venerated because of their reputed connection to historic or legendary figures, or they may be valued or esteemed because of their great age, beauty, rarity, or monetary worth. In each instance, they may be granted new meanings or interpretations by later populations, even descendent ones, that would have mystified or perhaps even amused their creators. For many Natives, knowing is a privilege, not an absolute right, and within traditiontal cultures, access to certain categories of information and knowledge is granted only after a prolonged period of initiation or indoctrination. Uncontrolled access to either physical objects or sacred intellectual property (restricted songs, dances, or myths, for example) in many instances is considered capable of producing catastrophic results for the individual, in the form of physical or mental illness, or even sudden death.

In many Native communities, museums continue to be seen as repositories of objects and information ill-gotten, and as such remain painful symbols and reminders of cultural loss and deprivation. Thus a museum's public display, or even possession of, sacred objects, represents an historic act of desecration transformed into a continuing act of sacrilege.

In conclusion, an appropriate course of action and a legitimate treatment option with regard to the conservation of Native North American sacred art or artifacts is well-informed and carefully considered non-intervention, with conservators familiarizing themselves as far as is appropriate with the non-physical attributes of the object, and its current significance to its originating indigenous culture or its modern-day descendent population, and taking these criteria into account in determining the extent of their interactions with it.

 [WAAC]  [WAAC Newsletter]  [WAAC Newsletter Contents]  [Search WAAC Newsletter]  [Disclaimer]


[Search all CoOL documents]


URL: http://cool.conservation-us.org/waac/wn/wn17/wn17-3/wn17-310.html
Timestamp: Thursday, 11-Dec-2008 13:02:34 PST
Retrieved: Friday, 24-Nov-2017 20:23:20 GMT