39th Annual Meeting- Objects Morning Session, June 2, “A Definite Responsibility to Shoulder: The Preservation of Historical Objects at the Bahá’í World Centre,” by Victor Sobhani and Sonjel Vreeland.

Victor Sobhani presented a talk about the conservation work undertaken at the Bahá’í World Centre, located in Haifa, Israel. The Centre is a special and important pilgrimage site for members of the Bahá’í Faith as it contains the shrines of its two founders, Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, as well as other related buildings and monuments. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mr. Sobhani went into further details about the founders of the Bahá’í Faith and the type of collections at the Centre. Collections are kept on view or stored in the various buildings and includes decorative or fine arts, home furnishings, sacred texts, ceremonial objects, and relics. Mr. Sobhani noted that preservation of the collections was considered vital early on as Bahá’u’lláh wrote about caring for the Bahá’í texts and cultural materials in the nineteenth century.   

As an example of minimal intervention, Mr. Sobhani discussed a treatment performed on a pocket knife owned and used by the Báb. The knife was used to trim quills for writing and exhibited minor corrosion on the metal blades. As an additional note of interest, Mr. Sobhani indicated the knife was made in England by Rogers and Sons and pointed out the indirect contact between Western and Muslim society. In the end, the blades received minor cleaning as the object, while appearing mundane, is considered a sacred relic and the goal was to cause as little change as possible. Another treatment he discussed was an eighth century ceramic vessel from Peru. The vessel had a polychrome, painted bird design and a section of the handle was missing. In this treatment, the missing element of the handle was reconstructed. I have to admit I did not hear quite clearly how this type of object entered the collection at the Centre; perhaps it was brought by a pilgrim visiting the shrines or a gift from a visitor? Mr. Sobhani then talked about a stone (travertine) obelisk that was brought to Haifa from Italy in the 1950’s. The obelisk is thirty feet tall and has a glass mosaic component. The mosaic had become damaged and resulted in some of the glass tesserae missing. For this treatment, Mr. Sobhani and his colleagues decided to paint the voids where the tesserae were missing. He noted that the painting was difficult as the work had to be performed on scaffolding and the light changed throughout the day. The three diverse treatments illustrated the range of materials and diverse problems the conservators encounter at the Centre.

Mr. Sobhani discussed his work at the Centre with great reverence and dignity, which was quite fitting for the sacred nature of the place he works, and concluded the presentation with a remark about the immense gravity surrounding any conservation work performed on objects used or associated with the founders and their families. He likened this to the sandals worn by Jesus or the walking stick used by Moses so that audience members could grasp the great weight, as the title of the talk affirms, placed on the conservators to maintain the collections according to the Bahá’í Faith (in original condition as much as possible).