30 Sep 2022 | Diana Gabler
Reflecting on misconceptions about conservation
21 September 2022. It was an intensive day at the storage facility of the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Fischbek just outside of Hamburg, where colleagues and I welcomed Gwaii Edenshaw and his brother Jaalen, two Haida artists from the Northwest Coast, who were visiting some of their cultural belongings from MARKK’s collection. Engaging in conversations about their recent visit to the Humboldt Forum Berlin, Germany, Gwaii and Jaalen documented masks and boxes that our team prepared for them on a table in the conservation lab. Talking about the things in front of us, we were working toward building personal relationships with each another.
That same night I rushed back to the main MARKK venue in the city center to attend a talk with Dan Hicks and Barbara Plankensteiner about the return of looted African cultural heritage1. In his lecture on the shift in museums toward ownership transfer and other models of curation, Dan Hicks very subtly mentioned something about conservation – someone unfamiliar with contemporary conservation practices might have missed it. To paraphrase: Longstanding museum practices in “universal museums” result in “stopping the world from changing” and conservation contributes to “freezing cultures in their place.” The idea he conveyed in a few sentences, which he almost skimmed over to make a larger point in his talk, made me think of misconceptions about what conservation of cultural materials means. I frequently encounter similar situations in my practice as a conservator for cultural materials at MARKK and as a researcher studying collaborative conservation approaches in the context of wider changes in museum practice.
Starting from Western-centric concepts of preservation, conservation has evolved since the 1990s from material-based notions of care to people-centered approaches based in social activities (e.g., Bernstein 1992; Clavir 2002; Sully 2007; Avrami 2009; Swierenga 2021; Fekrsanati and Marçal 2022). Incorporating diverse perspectives on the care and treatment of cultural materials is now considered fundamental to creating sustainable and equitable policies for the handling of cultural materials in museum collections.
Conservation practice has shifted toward a multidisciplinary approach to decision-making, away from a belief in singular authority. A great example I came across recently was presented by Felicity Bodenstein in her talk at MARKK2. There have been several approaches to return the British Museum’s iconic ivory pendant mask from Benin3 through loans and repatriation. As she shows from a note by Malcolm Donald McLeod (Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum 1974-1990), conservation considerations were used to deny returns: “The Benin mask has now attained a state of equilibrium with its present environment. If moved to an entirely new environment, particularly one on a hot or very cold climate, cracking of the ivory might well occur.” This note shows how arguments about preservation were used as a pretext, and thus contributed to the museum’s failure to change. Heidi Swierenga (senior conservator, Museum of Anthropology, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam Territory at the University of British Columbia) points out in her presentation during the September 2021 workshop “From Conservation to Conversation – Rethinking Collections Care” at MARKK4, changes to cultural materials during community activation declared as damages could be a reason for denying access to communities connected to things in museum collections.
Conservation today is instead about putting people first, allowing change, and redefining what damage is. The people and stories associated are just as important, if not more important, than the material. The key to a contemporary approach to conservation is to allow change, to engage, and to gain new insights from encounters. “Contemporary theory of conservation calls for ‘common sense’, for gentle decisions, for sensible actions. What determines this? Not truth or science, but rather the uses, values and meanings that an object has for people. This is determined by the people” (Muñoz Viñas 2005: 212). Facilitating community engagement with the things in museum collections and the people from whom they originate are part of the transformation that conservation practice is undergoing. Creating access to the museum’s collections, just as we did on that day, 21 September 2022 in Fischbek, is a step in that direction.
 Museum talk with Dan Hicks and Barbara Plankensteiner: “The decade of returns - exhibition practice after the era of universal museums.” Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt. September 21, 2022 6pm (last viewed 15 Sept 2022).
 Museum talk with Felicity Bodenstein: “The Long History of the Return and Restitution of the Benin Royal Treasures to Nigeria.” Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt. September 15, 2022 (last viewed 15 Sept 2022).
 Heidi Swierenga „It’s just like day parole: the temporary release of family belongings from institutional holdings“. Talk at the digital workshop “From Conservation to Conversation – Rethinking Collections Care” in September 2021 at MARKK (last viewed 15 Sept 2022).
Avrami, Erica C. 2009. “Heritage, Values, and Sustainability.” In Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths, edited by Alison Richmond und Alison Lee Bracker, 177–83. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum London.
Bernstein, Bruce. 1992. “Collaborative Strategies for the Preservation of North American Indian Material Culture.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 31(1):23–29.
Clavir, Miriam. 2002. Preserving What Is Valued: Museums, Conservation, and First Nations. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Fekrsanati, Farideh, and Hélia Marçal. 2022. “Affirming Change in Participatory Practices of Cultural Conservation.” In Participatory Practices in Art and Cultural Heritage: Learning Through and from Collaboration, edited by Christoph Rausch, Ruth Benschop, Emilie Sitzia, and Vivian van Saaze, 127–42. Studies in Art, Heritage, Law and the Market 5. Cham: Springer.
Muñoz Viñas, Salvador. 2005. Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.
Sully, Dean, ed. 2007. Decolonizing Conservation: Caring for Maori Meeting Houses outside New Zealand. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Swierenga, Heidi. 2021. “A subtle shift: The care and use of Indigenous belongings after the ‘Calls to Action.’” In Transcending Boundaries: Integrated Approaches to Conservation. ICOM-CC 19th Triennial Conference Preprints, Beijing, 17-21 May 2021, edited by J. Bridgland, 1–8. Paris: International Council of Museums.