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Demonstration of Tlingit basket making by Teri Rofkar

Demonstration of Tlingit basket making by Teri Rofkar.

A shorter version of the review appeared in: ICON News, January 2012, Issue 38, pp. 28-29.

Event/Programme: ICON Ethnography Group Seminar

Title: Conservation and Source Communities: Research, Objects and Treatments

Date: November 16th, 2011

Venue: Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford

The Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford provided an outstanding venue for a one-day seminar centred on the interactions between indigenous communities and the conservation profession. Between 40 and 50 people packed the conference room at the museum to listen and watch presentations featuring collaborative projects that have been or still are underway in various parts of the world. Participants were warmly welcomed by Ethnography Group committee member Emilia Kingham. She neatly summed up some of the common themes we all would later hear throughout the day. Namely, consultations or collaborations occur at a range of institutions, in a variety of places, usually involve several people, and require extensive planning to ensure the experience is meaningful for all.

Conservator Heather Richardson of the Pitt-Rivers Museum launched the first session of the day and remarked that, in general, providing greater access to collections has become more prevalent as museums seek ways to remain relevant and sustainable in the current times. She then went on to discuss three projects that occurred between conservation staff at the Pitt-Rivers Museum and First Nation communities in Canada. Staff worked with a group of Canadian researchers focused on material culture from the Great Lakes Region, the Haida, and Blackfoot. In her concluding comments about working with source communities, Heather noted that respect and sensitivity towards culture was vital.

The second talk was co-presented by Tlingit weaver and basket artist Teri Rofkar and conservator Luba Dovgan Nurse. They began their collaborative work at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian conservation laboratories, in Washington D.C., while Luba was there as a Fellow and Teri was invited as a cultural consultant and teach a four day workshop in Tlingit spruce root basketry. Luba and Teri flawlessly took turns discussing their partnership in the investigation, materials analysis, and conservation of Tlingit-made spruce root baskets. Their partnership was also brilliantly described as a union of traditional Tlingit science and conservation science. At one point in the presentation, Teri referred to the Tlingit baskets as ‘elders,’ or mentors, as she continually learns from them all.

Next, Debra Carr, a materials engineer, discussed a long-term and equally profound partnership she has developed with Māori Rua McCallum in New Zealand, in which they have integrated indigenous and western knowledge in the investigation of plant materials used to create objects there. I liked the way Debra described her collaborative work with Rua and other Māori community members as an ongoing series of negotiations, in which trust, mutual respect, and friendship were built over time.

Session two started with a presentation by Titika Malkogeorgou, a teaching assistant in the anthropology department at University College London. She evaluated a course of action implemented at the Victoria & Albert Museum which resulted in sacred texts being removed from a hollow, fourteenth century, Tibetan bronze sculpture of the Buddha. The texts were discovered when the sculpture was sent to the conservation studio for condition assessment and conservation. The decision whether or not to remove the texts from the sculpture involved conservators, curators, the museum director, board of trustees, and the local Buddhist community. Titika outlined the arguments that were made in support of or against removing the texts but, ultimately, the board of trustees decided in favour of removing the texts, in keeping with the museum’s secular principles. Titika spent a good deal of time discussing the policies of the V&A Museum but I also hoped to hear more about the consultative work that occurred with the Buddhist community. She did note that the Buddhist practitioners were not comfortable with the contents being removed from the sculpture but the subject was not elaborated upon further. This presentation conveyed a different character than the other talks that occurred throughout the day.

After that, conservator Teresa Heady took the podium to talk about her years of field work working with communities in Nepal, India, and Mongolia. Teresa discussed her efforts to provide training to the communities in documenting and conserving Thangkas (painted devotional pieces on textiles) and wall paintings, using the materials available in their region and in practical techniques they could carry out. A motto she developed over time was that the “lab does not go to the field rather the field with its local community dictates what you do in the lab.” The communities she worked with lived in remote regions so it was interesting to learn of the challenges involved and how they were resolved to the benefit of all.

To begin session three, Cecilie Gravesen, an artist and curator of contemporary art, presented an experimental documentary film about the traditional Māori meetinghouse Hinemihi that was brought from New Zealand in the nineteenth century and reassembled at Clandon Park in Surrey. The Māori consider Hinemihi to be the living embodiment of an ancestor and permission was obtained from the custodians, The National Trust, to have a sleepover in the meetinghouse. The experience was documented in the film visually but was also enhanced by series of sounds and by the display of hands affectionately touching elements of Hinemihi. The tactile nature of the film was essential as, I learned from Cecilie’s abstract, the meetinghouse is considered a human being, “an imbued ancestor capable of losing its spirit if not subjected to human touch and warmth.” The film definitely returned life and understanding to a structure that had been removed from its original environment.

Then, Charles Stable, a conservator at the National Museums Scotland, talked about a collaborative project that took place between the conservation staff at the museum and Māori artist George Nuku. Charles described the project as a “renewal of a waka,” a waka being a war canoe, and as an arts commission combined with conservation work. Conservators and George Nuku worked in concert to restore and conserve an incomplete waka that was in the museum’s collection. George carved the missing components out of perspex so that it would be quite obvious which sections were recreated and which were original. George also aptly named the vessel ‘to join,’ since the waka became a combination of new and old materials. Charles made note of the long-term preservation issues with perspex but is approaching the overall preservation of the waka in terms of contemporary art conservation. Since it is a unique approach, Charles concluded the talk with a request for feedback from colleagues in order to discuss the ethics and appropriateness of the methods used to restore and conserve the waka.

To continue with the theme of Māori canoes, conservator Farideh Fekrsanati discussed a project between the Māori community in New Zealand and the Museum Volkenkunde and Njord Royal Rowing Club in Leiden, the Netherlands. Two wakas, plus a wharewaka (waka shelter), were commissioned in order to establish a long-term relationship between the Māori and Dutch people. The wakas also introduced the Dutch people to Māori culture and traditions and were made to be used by both Māori and non Māori people. Farideh went on to talk about the concerns and logistics that arose from the wakas being used as living, working representations of culture rather than accessioned objects in a collection that receives minimal handling. One such concern was deciding when was the right time to address cracks in the wood or flaking paint caused by use. Audience members could sympathise with Farideh’s journey to find balance between the waka’s purpose, to be used, and the desire to deter damage.

Luba Dovgan Nurse returned in session four to recount the conservation of a rare Māori rain cloak in the Economic Botany Collection at Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. She collaborated with Dinah Eastop, Mark Nesbitt, and Māori communities living in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. This work formed the basis of her dissertation, submitted at the Textile Conservation Centre, University of Southampton. The dissertation also became a way to share and make the cloak more available to the Māori communities in the UK and New Zealand. The dissemination of information resulted in a positive response from the cultural representatives and demonstrated that research had value to source communities.

The final presentation was given by conservator Marian Kaminitz via Skype. Marian’s talk was reflective and provided an overview of the consultations with indigenous communities that have occurred within the conservation department at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington D.C., over the past several years. Since the museum considers itself the steward of the collection, this has created greater dialogue and led to long-term relationships with source community members. She noted that respect and inclusiveness has produced greater rewards and concluded that the conservation field needs more diversity, more indigenous conservators in the conservation profession.

Dinah Eastop closed the day with thoughtful and thought-provoking remarks. She commented on the interrelationships between the tangible and intangible, the persistent problem with terminology and describing objects, and who is considered the owner or custodian of cultural heritage. And, she reminded audience members not to assume everyone thinks the same way, which is sound advice when collaborating with colleagues and source communities. Dinah also recommended and brought to the event two recently published books relevant to conservation profession:

David Miller, 2008, The Comfort of Things, Cambridge: Polity Press, and

Janet Marstine, ed. Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, London: Routledge.

The coffee and lunch breaks were lively as they provided the perfect opportunity for colleagues to meet, catch up, or discuss their work. At the same time, three posters were on display. One poster was created by Heritage Without Borders and highlighted their work in Sarajevo this past summer. The second, by Christian Kingham, discussed a collaborative and creative mount-making project for an exhibit at the Horniman Museum. And, the third poster, by Sarah Owens, also presented a collaborative approach to mount-making and display for an object at the National Museum of Scotland.

As an additional treat, Teri Rofkar set up an eye-catching display during the lunch break that highlighted her basketry, weaving skills, and the raw materials she uses in her work. Participants were able to speak in greater detail with Teri and learn more about the materials she uses and how she weaves baskets and textiles.

Before everyone departed at the end of the day, Jeremy Uden and Robin Ohern provided a tour of the Pitt-Rivers Museum’s conservation studio. There was a fascinating array of objects for the participants to see and learn about, such as a Tahitian mourning suit collected during one of Captain Cook’s voyages.

This was the first ICON Ethnography Group event I have attended and it proved to be a contemplative and engaging day. This subject could easily consume a conference over several days but the one day seminar still provided a terrific opportunity to hear about projects taking place in diverse parts of the world, be inspired by the dedication and creativity of colleagues, and to appreciate that consultative work is an organic and bespoke process built on respect.

Francis Lukezic

Francis Lukezic is currently a student at Cardiff University, undertaking a Master of Science in Conservation Practice, and a committee member of the ICON Ethnography Group. From October 2009 to September 2010, she was an intern in the conservation laboratory at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.