By Nancy Odegaard

As conservators of ethnographic and archaeological objects move toward greater cultural sensitivity to the objects in their care, the fact that they are charged with the task of protecting and preserving the cultural heritage of others becomes increasingly apparent.

Professional conservators focus on preservation. Sometimes their assessments of objects and collections lead solely to treatment. But at other times, their investigations and the subsequent knowledge produced can also influence the overall narrative of a research project. Conservators who work with objects from archaeological sites and indigenous cultures may represent just one specialty among many on a project. In these instances, the challenge for the conservator extends beyond preservation of the physical form of the objects to include interdisciplinary dialogues with other specialists, and the contribution of relevant information to a larger body of human knowledge.

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More and more, there are examples of collaboration among conservators and curators, archaeologists, cultural representatives, conservation scientists, and others that illustrate how conservators of any specialty can contribute to cultural discussions through their focus on analysis and deterioration. Because conservators have a unique ability to see and understand the material aspects of objects, to relate material structure to technology, and to stabilize and protect objects from deterioration, they can contribute directly to scholarly inquiry—provided, of course, that they are part of the discussion.

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Technical Studies

Over the last 50 years, scientific and technical studies have become an important part of the conservation field. Conservation science investigates the variations of material and technology over time through the use of analytical techniques and through the application of data to models that explain how raw materials are transformed into new materials (as when clay constituents transform into a ceramic) and how they decompose. This specialized knowledge complements and supports studies of deterioration and the development of stabilization strategies.

Traditionally, studies in conservation start with artifact structure. (In fact, sometimes is it assumed that this is all that remains, or all that needs to be studied.) After a review of materials composition and construction techniques, comparative methods are used to assess the artifact's response to the environment or its state of deterioration, which is then examined and reported. Finally, treatment techniques are evaluated, and new treatments are devised to stabilize the symptoms of deterioration visible on the object. The overall approach is built on tangible material structure.

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Studies in technical art history have been used in conservation for identifying raw materials, evaluating structure and properties of creative technologies, and explaining the mechanisms of deterioration. Technical art history can also provide a range of data useful to research in such areas as provenance or dating, technological style studies, authentication, and the testing of theories about the artist's aesthetics. As the scientific methods of studying, measuring, and characterizing material culture become more sophisticated, a wider range of research questions may be investigated.

Archaeological science has successfully introduced a wide range of analytical techniques to the study of archaeology. However, incorporating the results obtained from these techniques into broader studies remains a challenge. In addition, issues of deterioration and stabilization are seldom discussed in anthropological material culture studies, and thus, references to alterations due to research, interpretation, or curation are rare.

Many ethnographic conservators share with researchers, scholars, and curators of anthropology an interest in contextual issues and broader cultural information. Yet ethnographic objects are most often evaluated in reference to Western art rather than in reference to the indigenous traditions from which they originate. Even though ethnographic conservators refer to information collected by anthropologists, they usually rely on a treatment approach derived from fine arts conservation. Few fine arts conservators are prepared or sensitized for work that takes into consideration anthropology's contextual issues. Material culture studies offer a contrast to the studies of connoisseurship and aesthetics used by art historians and fine arts conservators.

Material Culture Studies

Material Culture Studies is the exploration of the relationship between artifacts and social issues. Drawing from anthropology, archaeology, design, history, geography, and museology, these studies provide a flexible framework for research and discussion of a wide range of information regarding cultural belief, behavior, history, and survival. It is not assumed that a collection or the cultures are fixed. As information is interpreted, reconstructed, reinforced, and qualified through several stages of research, perceptions from all periods of a collection's history are valued.

The integration of material culture studies with conservation studies offers significant benefits. First, aspects of material culture studies can assist conservation as it looks for ways to improve the methodology for considering intangible information. Second, conservation observations may illuminate many issues in the study of a culture that have previously gone unnoticed. Common to both disciplines is a need to understand the physical properties of objects.

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Through this integrated approach, ethnographic conservators participate in research that evaluates the importance of an object based on what can be learned from its context, the ideas behind it, and the forces that created it. Today it is understood by many ethnographic conservators that without the inclusion of context, the use of ethnographic objects in museums and their alteration (change through reassembly, consolidation treatment, replacement parts, pesticides, or exhibit mounts) can actually contribute to physical deterioration, to the loss of vital cultural information, and to the distortion of intangible integrity. For example, musical instruments constitute an object class for which certain types of changes, or the lack of special care techniques, will distort or damage the intangible sound quality.

In recent years, some conservators of indigenous or ethnographic objects have been challenged to consider the various cultural factors that may contribute to the deterioration of material culture or that may prescribe which cultural conditions should be preserved. Until recently, the topics of repatriation and ownership, for example, were areas that few conservators considered part of their field. Thus, using contextual analysis or an externalist view focused outside the material object itself to determine the significance of intangible attributes is taking conservators well beyond traditional conservation practices. To incorporate external viewpoints, collaboration with indigenous peoples is necessary.

It is now more common for major anthropology museums to collect, exhibit, and preserve collections through collaboration. At the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, for instance, conservators have been meeting with tribal representatives for several years to determine the appropriate procedures for conservation, storage, and care of the nearly 20,000 Southwest ceramic vessels in the collection. This collaboration has affected the design of storage facilities, and the materials used in storage, treatment, and handling procedures. For example, funerary objects will be separated from other pottery. Plastics will not be used for storage containers or supports for these items; stabilization treatments will not be initiated; and these objects will not be exhibited. Instead, boxes will hold untreated vessels with weakened joins. These items will receive minimal handling, and cultural consultations will be arranged to address management questions.

New Partnerships, New Responsibilities

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Most often, the analysis and the interpretation of ethnographic and archaeological material culture have been the domain of ethnographic or archaeological curators. Within the conservation field, the potential benefits of preserving material culture while respecting cultural integrity are gaining recognition as an important issue. What, then, is the role of conservators in understanding the behavior, beliefs, wisdom, and concepts of beauty in traditional cultures?

For conservators working with ethnographic objects, issues of ethics and cultural significance need to be viewed in the context of the larger controversies of repatriation and cultural diversity affecting indigenous communities and their cultural material. Increasingly, indigenous peoples request that they be involved in the study and interpretations of their culture and history, that their access to collections in museums be improved, and that repatriation of artifacts and human remains be implemented without unnecessary delays. Input from indigenous peoples can be part of a conservator's contextual research—research that includes the intent of the originator artist or artisan, the object's conceptual integrity, and the object's other nonphysical attributes. However, an inquiry into this kind of contextual information is not part of the conservator's standard examination or documentation. Although rare, some institutions have adopted specific provisions to address contextual research—a fact that suggests that including these aspects of context is slowly becoming a more mainstream professional obligation.

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The role of conservation in the relationship between museums and indigenous peoples is also changing. Indigenous peoples tend to be minorities in their countries and do not necessarily follow the dominant culture's ideology of artifact collection, study, and display. New partnerships and responsibilities are needed to bring these two constituencies together. Conservators at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver are among those who have established partnerships incorporating community values into the exhibition process and programming, as well as through the lending of items for traditional cultural uses.

As museums of anthropology throughout the United States have developed or remodeled their exhibition halls to effect cultural reconciliation, cultural issues have also affected traditional behind-the-scene activities, including conservation. Some of these activities—such as feeding or blessing objects with smoke, dis-assembly, or the addition of new material—contradict the basic tenets of conservation, and there is a need for guidelines for the study, treatment, or nontreatment of these collections. In preparing for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., conservators made advances in this area through the use of indigenous curators throughout the processes of object selection, interpretation, and preservation. Conservators included traditional indigenous methods and materials in the conservation treatments and invited indigenous experts to perform some of the treatments.

In several parts of the world, indigenous peoples have increased public awareness on issues of heritage, social problems, and legal rights—in spite of their long history of extermination, assimilation, division, persecution, relocation, and redefinition, resulting from contact with industrialized nations. Research and analysis of the specific impacts of contact on indigenous material culture have identified the imbalance in knowledge regarding indigenous art and culture.

Conservation can play an important role in the interdisciplinary study of tangible heritage. While the field will continue to research the physical aspects of objects it should also collaborate with others who can contribute a diverse range of intangible information regarding these objects. Understanding the social issues of traditional technologies is as important as preserving an object's physical attributes.

Nancy Odegaard is the head of Preservation at the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, in Tucson