The Contemporary Conservator

6 Aug 2015 - 12:30

Contemporary Issues in Dr Sanchita Balachandran’s Conservation Workshop – Overview and Afterthoughts by Adele van Heerden

workshop sanchita2From the 13th to the 17th of July, Honours in Curatorship students participated in a workshop on Contemporary Issues in Art Conservation. This workshop was arranged by and held at the Iziko South African National Gallery and instructed by Sanchita Balachandran, Curator/Conservator of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Johns Hopkins University. In this piece, Honours in Curatorship student Adele van Heerden reflects on this workshop. 

Our ideas of what conservation means are constantly in flux, whether based on objects or cultural heritage, on the material or immaterial. Conservation work overlaps with curatorship in the way that both require extensive research, critical thinking and creativity. The atmosphere of Dr Sanchita Balachandran’s workshop was more collaborative and less authoritative, with an emphasis on an exchange of ideas. It was her second time visiting Cape Town, and she mentioned that her first visit to South Africa had greatly influenced the way she thought of conservation and heritage.

“Conservation is about people” she says, more than once during the week. According to her, it is time to move past the stereotype of a conservator working in isolation with their artefacts.  As if to emphasise this point the honours in curatorship students were given the task of each posting daily updates to the contemporary blogging platform, Tumblr, in order to engage with a global public. With computers and wi-fi access provided, we were given the autonomy to say what we really thought a contemporary conservator should care about. The interactive platform allowed conservators and other followers from across the world to respond, and this is just one example of how Dr Balachandran brings people together to talk about contemporary issues in conservation.

Dr Balachandran believes that issues in conservation should be made more accessible to the public, and that it is vital to include local communities, whether working on a specific site, in a lab, or in the museum. She also considers it vital to be engaged with written material on conservation, whether it is from an academic journal or the popular media. Her hopes are that what is learned goes beyond the classroom, extending into the daily lives of her students. Dr Balachandran argues that a collaborative, subjective approach needs to be taken today when making decisions around conservation. Museums are now acknowledging the changes that have been made to artworks by providing reasons why treatments have been done to paintings, while also explaining how they were done. It is now customary to learn about the conservation process in the exhibition context, and it is often detailed with the help of illustrations, maps and images. According to DrBalachandran, the public really do want to know about conservation, and it is important for conservators and institutions not to isolate them from what occurs behind the scenes.

“All conservation treatments are political and non-neutral” Dr Balachandran emphasizes as she attempts to highlight the ethics around conservation treatments. As with every individual, conservators have subjective and emotional experiences which influence their decisions when they work. The decision to restore or not to restore a cultural artefact must be mediated by cultural experts and stakeholders, as conservators themselves cannot make this decision alone.

Each conservator should have a code of ethics according to which they work, but the limits of these codes should not be ignored. For example, codes of ethics for conservation often have a ‘western’ cultural bias, and do not necessarily apply everywhere in the world. Similarly, codes that are applied within the museum context are often difficult to apply outside of it. It is absolutely vital to consult stakeholders, peers and other specialists when decisions on treatments for objects and sites are made. Therefore, by choosing to intervene and treat an object – or not to – conservators function as narrators in the act of interpretation, and are therefore not neutral actors.

In order to be critical, the conservator must think about not only what is lost through change, but also what is gained: while artefacts and sites are changed by decay and war, they also acquire a history which is important to conserve. During a discussion of heritage places, we considered the vulnerability of monuments and places of memory during times of conflict due to the emotional attachment that is felt towards them. The well-documented destruction of heritage objects and sites provokes the world’s media attention, which ironically makes them, in turn, even more vulnerable to destruction in times of war. While destruction of heritage can occur suddenly and deliberately, such as in the case of looting and damage to archaeological sites during civil war, the natural changes to a site’s landscape can also function as a type of heritage loss. Destruction can build over time, resulting in a change of meaning and interpretation, such as in the case of Oradur-sur-Glane, an entire village destroyed in the Second World War.  Although it is intended to be a place memorialized in its destruction and loss while functioning as a site of trauma, it has become a mass-tourist attraction and Dr Balachandran argues that it has lost some of its potency through the mellowing of decay.

In a lecture on dealing with sensitive collections on day four of our workshop, it became clear that conservators often become complicit in the battle between respectful treatment of human remains and scientific study. Dr Balachandran illustrated this point with the example of the Kennewick Man/Ancient One, who was discovered in 1996 in Columbia Park, Kennewick in Washington. Due to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in the USA, if it was discovered he was indeed Native American his remains would need to be repatriated to the Umatilla people for reburial. However in 2004 a court charged the Burke Museum in Washington with housing the remains of the Kennewick Man in a controlled environment, despite the Umatilla’s commitment to fighting for the return of his remains, after the discovery of his Native American ancestry (Preston, 2004). When dealing with sensitive collections, the conservator must often act as the mediator between the scientific and ethical implications of the treatment of objects and remains. Therefore, the conservator is no longer ‘only’ preoccupied with the scientific treatment and restoration of objects. Rather, the conservator becomes involved in complex discussions and decision making processes which affect the ethical treatment of objects and remains.

Contemporary museum practice often involves the repatriation of objects to ancestral groups for functional or ceremonial purposes. In the past, cultural artefacts associated with colonial expeditions were often treated with pesticides such as arsenic or methyl-bromide in order to avoid contamination or degradation associated with pests. In effect, extensive research has been conducted in the United States on how to remove arsenic compounds from material objects, so they can be safely used, touched and worn when they are repatriated (Sadongei, 2005).  Whether South African collections have these pesticide residues on them or not still needs to be investigated. Dr Balachandran considers it to be highly probable, because colonial expeditions often treated objects they acquired with poisons before they were added to museums.

This leads us to discuss the important function the conservator plays in the institution’s acquisition period:  the museum must consider whether the objects or artworks being acquired for exhibition will be safe for humans to engage with. Objects that are potentially toxic must be stored in air-tight vitrines if they cannot be treated.

The museum or gallery must also consider the longevity of modern materials used by artists. The artist should be questioned if work can be fixed by the curator and, if so, how treatment should be approached. The intention of the artist should be carefully noted by the museum so that the conservator can intervene with the correct procedure. Therefore, insight into the intention of the artist, and how a work is meant to be experienced, is important as it adds a sense of authenticity to the work. Museums and art makers have a complicated relationship, and artists can often change their views on how their work should be treated, to the bewilderment of the conservator who must then interpret the artist’s intent before any treatments can be done. In the case of deceased artists, the conservator is responsible for dealing with the artist’s foundation in order to gauge how the work should be treated. Oral histories, historical writings and letters as well as cultural beliefs of the time can also be consulted in the case of older artworks or the absence of an artist’s foundation.

During the workshop with Dr Balachandran, I learned that the contemporary conservator needs to start looking beyond the physical conservation of objects, and needs to start thinking of conservation as a social process. The idea of the conservator working in isolation with the object is dead. The conservator today is also responsible for engaging with the public, negotiating with artists, and engaging in matters of cultural heritage as well as matters of legislation. The contemporary conservator must be aware of the different codes of ethics and charters for cultural heritage in order to engage meaningfully with their work.


The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) (Online)

The Vermillion Accord on Human Remains. 1989. (Online)

Preston, D. 2004. Smithsonian Magazine (Online)

Sadongei, A et al. “Describing the problem: Contaminated artifacts and Hopi cultural use” Old poisons, new problems: A museum resource for managing contaminated cultural materials. Odgegaard, N. et al. Altamira Press, 2005: xxiii-xxiv; 1-3

Describing the problem: Contaminated artifacts and Hopi cultural use