Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How Do Conservators Make Decisions?--Balachandran

What values—and whose values—do we preserve when we conserve artifacts and sites? Any object or site embodies a multiplicity of values—from aesthetic and historic values to spiritual, religious, cultural, emotional and use values. So how then can the conservator (and often the museum) appropriately retain all of these values and make them accessible to viewers? This week’s readings—Clavir, Brandi, Phillipot, and Taylor and Cassar—all point to the complexity of conservation practice and acknowledge that in order for some values to be preserved, others may have to be downplayed or even sacrificed. Whose values, then, do we take as paramount—the museum’s, the descendant community who claims the artifact, or the “general public” (a rather nebulous body)—to name but a few stakeholders? As a conservator, I’m torn between two desires: to keep artifacts “safe” in environmentally controlled vitrines where any member of the public who can visit the museum can see them; and to see artifacts in their original contexts, being used as objects of cultural renewal, spiritual devotion, or public engagement by the specific community to which they “belong” (again, a very contentious term). But both of these desires are motivated by my knowledge that artifacts mean something, they transmit something (to use Brandi’s words), but that something is both immediately recognizable and impossible to define. [Images show south Indian bronze idols in worship during a festival, and on view at the Government Museum, Chennai, India.]

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