In-between spaces: Creating a ‘thoughtful’ conservation approach
As an external contract conservator specializing in the care and treatment of cultural materials, I am currently working at the Museum am Rothenbaum ‒ Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) on the conservation of archaeological and historical ceramics from the Southwest of the United States collected by Aby M. Warburg (1866‒1929). For the first time, the entire collection will be presented to the public within the context of Warburg’s research and journey. For that purpose, MARKK’s original project outline “The Ceramics of the Aby Warburg Collection. Research and Restoration” included an in-depth cooperation with representatives of respective Pueblo communities (Indigenous communities located in the Southwestern United States, such as Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, and San Ildefonso) regarding curatorial and conservation-related questions. In order to formulate exhibition and treatment strategies considering the cultural context and sensitivities of the collection, it was planned to collaboratively address manufacturing techniques, materials used, and requirements for the conservation treatment and handling. However, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the trajectory of the entire project, leaving MARKK’s project team and myself with little to no active input from community members to guide conservation approaches. While consultation and collaboration processes with various Pueblo communities could finally be established, these are focused on questions of cultural sensitivity and curatorial questions. How do we then direct a treatment planning process when no community specialists are actively present to discuss problems of conservation treatment?
In addition to navigating an existing ‘absence’, a sense of being in-between is manifesting itself for me personally: I am currently a contract conservator for the MARKK, while moving towards a permanent position at the same institution (starting this summer). And, as part of my PhD research, I set out to analyze the museum’s practices towards collaborative conservation. The Aby Warburg project is part of my research aimed at exploring the concept of collaborative conservation (developing conservation treatment approaches in collaboration with Indigenous stakeholders). Since I am still a contract conservator, naturally, I am not part of the institution’s broader discussions on fundamental requirements for such a collaborative approach. Nevertheless, I am part of lively discussions with MARKK’s curator of the Americas department, Christine Chávez, and head of conservation, Farideh Fekrsanati, regarding treatment decisions for the ceramics: As we are trying to create a ‘thoughtful conservation approach’, discussions led us to address the ‘absence of the community’ in a newly created ‘mission statement’ and ‘conservation guiding principles’ that will frame treatment decisions for this particular project in its current condition. This was a major outcome of a discussion held in June 2021 with Dr. Nancy Odegaard (head of preservation and director of Arizona State Museum’s conservation laboratory; emerita) who has extensive experience in working with communities, e.g. on topics of ceramic preservation.
The outline of the guidelines includes some of the following guidance: All measures are supposed to stabilize the ceramics so that they can be handled, packed, transported, and displayed. In addition, measures should be designed to ‘improve’ the legibility and overall aesthetic impression of the ceramics, based on the notion of ‘cultural pride’, letting the ceramics represent Pueblo culture in the upcoming exhibition as best as possible with the information we have. Finally, all measures must be selected in a way that keeps all possibilities open for future discussions with Indigenous actors and require a sensitive handling while treatments are being carried out.
The entire ceramic collection will be examined, documented, and treated using the guidelines above, such as surface cleaning, addressing previous (museum-made) restorations, and assembling fragmented ceramics. Nevertheless, the question remains: Are we moving toward a collaborative museum environment or are we stuck in a space in-between ‘community absence’ and ‘normative approaches to collections care’?
Note: This blog entry is not intended to reflect the complexity of the collaborative project in its entirety. Instead, some specific aspects are considered from the perspective of the project conservator described above.