Preventive conservation training for anthropological museum professionals

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  • The InternationalJournal of Museum Management and Curatorship (1988), 7,365374

    Preventive Conservation Training for Anthropological Museum Professionals

    BARBARA F. SLIVAC

    The Commission on Museums for a New Century characterized the current state of collections care in American museums as a chronic, unquantified problem (1984:40). The gravity of this situation and the call for rectification has led to a change in funding priorities in some museums, away from a focus on exhibition to a focus on collections and conservation. One example of this change is the underwriting by the Bay Foundation of a project in collections care and maintenance. To oversee the project, the Bay Foundation created an Advisory Panel with representatives from the Foundation itself, the American Association of Museums, the American Association for State and Local History, and the National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property. As its first task, this Panel formulated a core curriculum and selected four museums to develop training curricula and to conduct pilot training courses as the testing ground.

    Development of Training Curricula

    From the beginning, the project organizers recognized the need to base each curriculum on the types of collections found in museums. The problems of people who deal with feather headdresses and boxes of pottery sherds are different from those of people who deal with folios of botanical specimens or oil paintings on canvas. As a result, four separate curricula were developed and tested in training courses by the Chicago Institute of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, and the Arizona State Museum. Using different types of collections as the distinguishing feature of each curriculum, the project began as object-centered, a fact which makes the project important to the reality of current collections care.

    In addition, the Advisory Panel recognized that care involves more than putting a new collection on a storeroom shelf or sending a crumbling manuscript to a conservator. Just as the Commission, which defined collections care as connoting everything from providing controlled environmental conditions to ensuring adequate security, maintain- ing necessary catalog records and repairing damage (1984 :40), the Advisory Panel proposed a core curriculum which included as topics:

    l environmental monitoring and control; l storage and exhibition techniques; l methods of inventorying, cataloguing, conditioning, and technical examination; l numbering and labeling; l packing and handling; l photographic skills; l computerization of documentation; and the l inter-relationship of the areas of registration, curation, and conservation.

    0260-4779/88/04 0365-10 $03.00 0 1988 Butterworth & Co (Publishers) Ltd

  • 366 Conservation Training for Anthropologists

    The core curriculum was composed of these concerns common to all museums, but the context-museum object type-made the project more specific than previous training courses for museum professionals.

    In its effort to develop the training curriculum for anthropology museum professionals, the Arizona State Museum formed a committee with staff representatives from administration, ethnology, collections, exhibition and conservation. Bringing together the differing perspectives on museum objects led to the creation of a practical curriculum: one centered on the objects, their use and their longevity. Working with consultants who produced detailed outlines for the given topics, the committee reviewed, made additions and changes, and through consensus developed a final curriculum which was first tested as a training course in 1986-7. The curriculum was then revised according to findings and tested a final time during 1987-8. The curriculum produced constitutes a course in preventive conservation covering all aspects of anthropological artifact care, with the exception of actual treatment procedures which remain the realm of the conservator.

    Course Development

    During the course development stage, defining the course audience proved to be the first major task. If the course were to have an impact on collections care, the people trained would have to be the actual collections care-givers in museums of all sizes. With this audience definition, museum directors, collections managers, curators, and registrars all became the appropriate applicants for the course. Whatever their position title, these were the people who had daily contact with the museum collections. They were also people who, with little or no conservation training, were concerned with extending the lives of the objects in their charge in perpetuity.

    With their daily work time taken up by routine tasks of accessioning and storing artifacts, creating documents for those artifacts, selecting and preparing artifacts for loans and exhibits, these people have little time to keep up with the latest happenings in those conservation practices which relate to their daily job responsibilities. The findings of museum conservators and conservation scientists, usually published in technical language in a few specialized journals, are simply not the daily reading of museum care-givers. Yet, preventive conservation is central to caring for and maintaining the integrity of museum objects. Although many collections managers make efforts to learn the newest theories and solutions to such things as the dangers of temperature fluctuations in storage areas, taking time to concentrate on solving that problem often occurs only when a crisis develops and demands immediate attention. In such a case, this one aspect of care improves, and others equally important are put on hold until time is available, additional staff are hired or another crisis occurs.

    People with two or more years of experience in dealing with collections will inevitably be well aware of the problems of care and maintenance of those collections. Such people will also have developed some specific solutions. What is missing for them is a holistic viewpoint, one from which the day-to-day decisions can be made confidently and in the best interests of the objects. The curriculum developed for the anthropological museum training course was geared to provide that information. The basic thrust of the curriculum was education in the practices of collections care, with the emphasis on the practical application of the classroom-imparted knowledge. The course would produce not conservators or conservation experts but rather museum professionals well versed in preventive conservation, aware of many more of the factors which affect objects and with

  • BARBARA F. SLIVAC 367

    the means to make decisions confidently about those objects. To achieve this, the curriculum was sequenced into six general blocks: the unique

    nature of anthropological collections; the composition and condition of anthropological artifacts; environmental conditions within the museum; problems of storage; the use of collections in exhibition; and the documentation concerns of collections management. None of these topics is new to in-service training for museum professionals. What is different, however, is putting them together and in a coherent sequence so that the interrelationships of various decisions become clear. The scope of the curriculum is probably best explained through a description of what was covered under these topics. Some aspects of the curriculum had a general relevance which allowed scheduling them into open time slots throughout the basic sequence just described. A listing of specific curriculum topics in the order of teaching and the class hours allotted for each during the second pilot course appears in Appendix 1.

    Anthropology Training Course

    The six-week training course for the care-givers was organized into two three-week sessions separated by a three- to four-month period. Two sessions, rather than one, were planned in order to ease the problems of absence from work. Six weeks appeared to be the minimum time needed to cover necessary material in depth. Six hours of class, consisting of one-and-a-half-hour periods, were scheduled daily Monday through Friday, with working field-trips organized for four Saturdays. Content of all discussions was as detailed as time allowed, and the focus throughout was on the collections.

    The course began with discussion of the nature of anthropological collections and those distinguishing features which directly affect their care. This inevitably led to the ethical questions which arise from artifacts that have religious and cultural significance, especially to Native Americans. Such artifacts are often central to the collections of most American anthropology museums. The conflict between normal conservation practices and the principle of retaining evidence of use on anthropological material for future research was also treated. In addition, a conservator, as either staff member or consultant, brings to the museum a unique point of view on the artifacts with which the entire staff must deal. With the presence of a conservator, becomes an issue.

    reduction of light levels frequently

    The second section of the program focused directly on artifacts. A review of methods and materials needed for proper handling of artifacts was followed by basic data on the natural materials and the technology of fashioning them into the objects found in anthropological collections. Given the volume of anthropological collections and the diversity of materials found in those collections, the issues raised in this section carried through the remainder of the course. With a basic understanding of materials, artifact condition can be dealt with. Instruction in condition report writing, condition surveys and condition photography was provided from th