Hide, glass beads, porcupine quills, sinew.
Oglala Lakota: South Dakota.
78 cm x 19 cm x 2 cm
Collection of the NMAI (14.2585)
As noted by former Secretary of the Smithsonian, Robert McCormick Adams, museums have moved "decisively from the older image of the museum as a temple with its superior, self-governing priesthood to... a forum... committed not to the promulgation of received wisdom but to the encouragement of a multi-cultural dialogue." For my paper I decided to look at how the role of the conservator and conservation efforts have been affected by this change through examining three case studies from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). These case studies included the loan of 24 Navajo blankets for exhibition and educational use, the loan of Siletz Nay Dosh (Feather Dance) regalia for ceremonial use, and the collaborative treatment of two Lakota bags for display. I also examined the case of repatriation of human remains as an example where cultural context completely overrides scientific endeavors (here science is taken to be DNA analysis rather than conservation).
While the museum's collections are legally owned by the citizens of the United States, they are taken to be culturally owned by the source communities and their decedents. Therefore, the museum holds itself to be the steward, not owner, of the objects it houses. Authority over the collection, including decisions about conservation treatments, is shared and worked out through collaborative efforts which often privilege cultural context. This has resulted in a fundamental shift in conservation theory from there being one right way to conserve an object towards the idea that the function or cultural value of the object is to be preserved.
The case studies highlight the importance of collaboration, knowledge sharing, respect, and, to a degree, willingness on the part of the conservator to give up control. Such collaborations means a broadening of methods, processes, and concepts of value. However, it cannot be assumed that there is a dichotomy between cultural preservation and object preservation. Because the objects are sources of information for Native communities and even embody their cultural beliefs, the two processes must work together for there to be success on both sides.
Video: Interview with Marian Kaminitz, Head of Conservation at NMAI.
Video: Interview with Jessica Johnson, Senior Object Conservator at NMAI.
Video: Talk by Marian Kaminitz.
Parfleche Bag, c.1875
Rawhide, paint, wool cloth, cotton, sinew.
Hunkpapa Lakota: North Dakota.
24 cm x 20 cm x 11 cm
Collection of the NMAI (23.3065)
(After and Before treatments: Sorry for the reversal or order!)