44th Annual Meeting – General Session, May 16: “Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis,” by Sanchita Balachandran

The theme of this year’s annual meeting focused on disasters and the unexpected in conservation. However, in her talk, Sanchita Balachandran, conservator at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, focused not on emergencies threatening the collections we care for, but, instead, on a crisis within the field of conservation itself: the crippling lack of diversity in our profession.
In one sense, conservators are very aware of the problem. As Balachandran pointed out, we are trained to recognize the intangible as well as the tangible values inherent in the objects we treat. Implicit in this training is the fact that, as conservators, we have the power to erase history.

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Sanchita Balachandran: “We must conserve not just objects, but the lives of people inscribed on them.”

What happens when that type of power is wielded by a small, homogenous group? Graduate school prerequisites require applicants to have spent a significant amount of time gaining experience, largely through unpaid internships, which effectively excludes people from less affluent backgrounds – and by extension, certain minority populations.  Similarly, people from these backgrounds may be less willing or able to make such drastic sacrifices for a field where the job opportunities after prolonged graduate study are low-paying and scarce. This limits the field as a whole, since more diverse groups have been proven to be more innovative and more productive.
The lack of diversity also has a more problematic effect on our work. When we treat an object, we choose which tangible and intangible values to retain, and which to discard. In doing so, we privilege certain types of objects and treatments. How do we approach the issue of Confederate monuments in Baltimore that were spray-painted with the slogan, “Black lives matter”? Should the slogan be removed?
Balachandran argued that we must confront the unequal ways in which objects come to institutions; museum processes were created by a colonial framework, from which conservation itself is not exempt. If nothing else, museums and libraries exist on land taken from Native American peoples. Museums must focus on cultural heritage, as opposed to cultural property, and work to rebuild connections between objects and the communities from which they were taken.
This issue of diversity is hardly a new problem. The people who become conservators largely come from a similar racial, cultural, and socio-economic background, and tend to be overwhelmingly female. However, by raising the subject in the annual meeting, Balachandran paved the way for a real discussion on how the field can encourage the participation of people of all backgrounds. At least, that is my hope as a fledgling conservator: that this will serve as a clarion call to the AIC board, graduate programs, and administrators to reflect upon their roles as gatekeepers to the field and to implement real changes to make our profession more inclusive. The fact that Sanchita Balachandran got a well-deserved standing ovation leads me to believe that my hopes are shared by others.
Edited to add: Read the full text of the talk at Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis, posted by Sanchita Balachandran.