By Eric Hansen and Mitchell Bishop
In a 1983 article describing the state of archaeological and ethnographic collections, Professor Henry W. M. Hodges wrote: "If one compares the truly vast literature in the field of oil painting, such as the provision of supports, with that which has been written about the treatment, say, of untanned skins or feather work, one will see the latter is almost non-existent, and one can gauge how little research is being done aimed at preserving our ethnographic collections."
Today, ten years later, the dearth of solutions to the conservation problems of archaeological and ethnographic objects remains. The search for answers is particularly urgent given the inherent impermanence of these objects.
Most indigenous technologies used in the manufacture of ethnographic objects did not produce physically durable objects. For example, collections of objects such as painted wood artifacts from Oceania or Africa are rarely more than two or three generations old because they contain materials that deteriorate easily.
A major challenge in the conservation of ethnographic objects is the consolidation of matte painted surfaces. Paints formulated with a poor quality binder or a high ratio of pigment to binder are normally matte in appearance. When, as is often the case, these paints are in a powdery, friable, or flaking condition, the result is continual paint loss. If a conservator treats a surface such as this with a consolidant to improve the paint's cohesion, other problems can arise. Consolidants frequently cause paint that is matte and light in appearance to darken and discolor.
Unfortunately, technical literature on this topic is not readily available. In 1990, the Getty Conservation Institute's Training Program organized an advanced course, "The Consolidation of Painted Ethnographic Objects," to address this problem. In anticipation of the course, Institute staff evaluated existing technical literature, surveyed over one hundred ethnographic conservators in the United States and Canada, and implemented a program of scientific research focusing on specific material and methodological problems.
One result of this research was the development of a low cost, "low tech" kit for the identification of binding media. Based on analytical kits originally used for medical purposes, the "Binding Media Identification Kit" does not require the use of sophisticated chemical or physical instrumentation, and can be assembled and resupplied with materials available from laboratory supply houses.
Subsequent to the 1990 course, the Institute's in-house scientific research on the subject was further refined. This research indicated that the treatment method (and factors affecting the treatment method) were more important in matte paint conservation than the consolidant chosen for a specific application. Specifically, new methods were explored that promoted the distribution of the consolidant throughout the paint surface in the initial application.
A description of this technique will appear in an article to be published in the Spring 1993 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Conservation. Details regarding the GCI's "Binding Media Identification Kit" were provided in an article in the Journal's Fall/Winter 1992 issue. While the methods described in both articles grow out of research on ethnographic artifacts, they are applicable to treatment problems in areas of conservation other than ethnographic ones.
Another addition to the literature will appear this year when Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts (a publication of the Getty Conservation Institute, in association with the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) publishes a supplemental bibliography titled Matte Paint: Its History and Technology, Analysis, Properties, Deterioration and Treatment (With Special Emphasis on Ethnographic Objects). The bibliography brings together material from a number of areas including anthropology, archaeology, ethnobotany, artists' notes and interviews, contemporary art journals, organic chemistry, coatings science, analytical chemistry, and the conservation literature.
As recognition of the importance of ethnographic collections grows, concern over the state of their preservation will likely increase. The conservation community will need to continue exploring new techniques if we are to protect this essential part of our collective cultural heritage.
Eric Hansen is an Associate Scientist in the GCI's Scientific Program. Mitchell Bishop is a Research Assistant in the GCI's Documentation Program.