AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Objects Morning Session, June 3, “Tangible vs. Intangible Collections: The Journey of Two Objects,” by Vinod Daniel and Dion Peita

The first three talks in the Friday morning OSG session all dealt with the issue of finding a balance between preservation and access.  In his talk titled “Tangible vs. Intangible Collections: The Journey of Two Objects”, Vinod Daniel, head of Cultural Heritage and Science Initiatives at the Australian Museum, demonstrated the ways in which he and his colleagues are working to bridge the gap between collections and communities.  While the Austrian Museum holds a wide variety of cultural material, half of the objects in the collection (some 60,000 objects) come from the Pacific region; almost three quarters of this material is from the indigenous cultures of Papua New Guinea.  Vinod and his co-author Dion Peita, Collections Coordinator for Cultural Collections and Community Engagement at the Australian Museum, engage in regular exchanges with people from the Pacific Islands and, more recently, with Pacific Island peoples living in the greater Sidney area.  These exchanges allow these groups to access their material culture in a very tangible way.  Objects from the collection are used for ceremonies and performances, which necessitates a dialogue between the caretakers of the object and the users.  For example, a bowl from the collection was used in a Kava Ceremony—part of an Intangible Heritage Forum held at the Museum in 2009—to mix water and plant materials.  The bowl was cleaned after the ceremony, and although no physical change was observed, its appearance was somewhat altered.  On hearing this anecdote I found myself wondering where this arguably acceptable change to the object would fall in the conventional ethical framework of our profession.  Yes, the bowl was altered through its use, but the intangible benefits of the activation of the bowl and the documentation of its ceremonial context, were evident.

Much of Vinod’s talk centered around an exciting cultural renewal project that is reconnecting people from the Vanuatu Islands, particularly the Island of Erromango, with their material culture.  After European contact in the mid 19th c., a dramatic decrease in the population and the discouraging of traditional practices led to an almost complete loss of the Island’s material culture.  Fortuitously, some of this material ended up in the Australian Museum, brought there by a Christian missionary.  Today, a collaboration between the Vanuatu Cultural Center and the Australian Museum is allowing the people of Erromango once again to access their cultural heritage.  Through the Visiting Elders Program, members of the Erromango community were able to study and handle objects from the Museum’s collection, many of which were no longer produced on their Island.   Sophie Nemban, a woman from Erromango working for the Vanuatu Cultural Center, was provided with funding to study the Museum’s collection of 532 objects from Erromango.  Ms. Nemban was able to examine and touch the objects, some of which she then recreated back home.  Her work aims to revive traditional female crafts on Erromango, and the acquisition of some of this new material by the Australian Museum speaks to the success for her efforts.  Vinod then showed the following video, available on the Museum’s website, in which Chief Jerry Taki talks about the singing arrows from Erromango: Singing Arrows. When asked if he wanted these objects to be repatriated, Jerry Taki said no, he believes that the objects are “at peace” where they are.  In an interview he referred to the Museum’s collection areas as a “sacred dancing ground”.

In addition to facilitating access within the Museum, Vinod and his colleagues believe that it’s also important to bring the collection to the Vanuatu Islands.  Most of young people on the Islands have never seen these objects or any like them, and the Australian Museum has put together a “suitcase” of sorts containing a digital version of the collection that can be brought to schools.  The Museum is also working to facilitate web access, particularly for diasporaic Pacific Island communities in the West, through projects like the Virtual Museum of the Pacific.

Vinod ended his talk by discussing the broader concerns raised by increased access: the physical handling of objects (“do people have to wear white gloves all the time?” and “is change to objects acceptable?”); security issues; and the inability of conservators and collections people to have complete control over what happens to the objects.  He believes the secrets to the successful balance between preservation and access include establishing relationships, investing time, showing genuine interest, repeated visits and, of course, a dedicated budget.  As someone who deals mainly with archaeological materials, I spend most of my time thinking about the tangible nature of objects…but Vinod’s talk was a very effective reminder that the stewardship of cultural heritage must also include the preservation of its intangible properties.

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting- Joint Objects and Archaeological Discussion Group Session, June 2, “Get Your Fieldwork for Nothin’ and Your Sherds for Free: Compensation for Archaeological Field Conservators,” Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello

Just what does an ‘80s rock band have to do with conservation?  Quite a bit, according to Claudia Chemello and Suzanne Davis, Conservators at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, who gave a talk titled: “Get Your Fieldwork for Nothin’ and Your Sherds for Free: Compensation for Archaeological Field Conservation.”  The title refers to the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”, which proved an excellent inverse parallel for the Qualtrics survey Claudia and Suzanne conducted, the findings of which they presented in this talk.  For context, you might want to go ahead and watch the music video for this song before reading the rest of this blog entry: Money for Nothin’

Claudia and Suzanne started this project with three hypotheses:

  1. Most conservators working on archaeological sites are not paid
  2. For those who are paid, there is no standard
  3. Most conservators are unhappy with the current state of compensation.

Happily, their first hypothesis turned out to be false: 82% of the conservators surveyed are paid something.  Of the respondents who did not get paid, the highest percentage (33%) said that the project was not able to pay a conservator, but, interestingly, did pay other professional staff; this slide is appropriately accompanied by a photograph from 1920 of a young volunteer on site in Syria who says: “Get your money for nothin’ and your chicks for free?”.  69% of the conservators who were paid also volunteered on other projects, and they did so for several reasons: they wanted to help a project with a small budget, they wanted to gain experience, or simply because they enjoy it.  I think its safe to say that many of us in the audience, myself included, have done some amount of unpaid conservation work—in the field or out of the field—for one or more of those reasons.

Although only 50 of the 116 responders used for analysis provided salary data, the information given by these 50 professionals proved that the authors’ second hypothesis is correct: there does not appear to be a standard salary for field conservators.  Indeed, the salaries provided varied rather dramatically, ranging from $58 per week to $8,000 per week!  The mean salary was $946 a week, the median $563, and the mode $1,000.   The difference between the very low minimum salary and very high maximum salary is partially based on the experience of the conservator: the person making the highest salary was very experienced and provided a number of services other than conservation treatment.

Claudia and Suzanne reported a number of other interesting statistics: 44% of the responders have only 0-5 years of experience (perhaps this explains the relatively low median salary?); 72% of those paid were paid by archaeological projects and 68% of these conservators were compensated based on the project’s budget (“are we letting projects determine what we’re paid?”); and a rather surprising 22% of respondents did not provide their projects with a written report (yikes!).  The survey yielded many other interesting results, too many for a single blog post, and I look forward to re-visiting them in the Postprints.

In the end, it turns out that only 41% of the respondents are satisfied with their current state of compensation—proving the authors’ third hypothesis to be more or less correct.  Claudia and Suzanne hope that the data obtained in this survey will be used for the following purposes: in salary discussions with dig directors and employers; to educate dig directors about the number and value of the services provided for their projects; to encourage conservators not writing reports to do so; and to advocate for an appropriate conservation budget from the beginning of the grant-writing process.  The authors told the audience to feel empowered to challenge the statement: “everyone on my project works for free”.   This fascinating (and entertaining) talk certainly emphasized the importance of communication and outreach, essential topics that have been highlighted by many of the speakers in this meeting.

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting- Joint Objects and Archaeological Discussion Group Session, June 2, “Beyond the Field Lab: Emergency Conservation in the Granicus River Valley of Northwestern Turkey,” by Donna Strahan

The afternoon OSG/ADG session began with a fascinating talk by Donna Strahan, Conservator in the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that very successfully demonstrated the importance of cooperation and flexibility in the preservation of cultural property. Donna began by introducing the site of Troy, where she has spent many seasons as a field conservator.  Troy is excavated by a number of international institutions, but a single conservation lab treats the finds unearthed from all of the excavations. The large site provides ample opportunities for education, functioning as both an archaeological field school and a place for conservation training for an international group of students.  Each season there are between one and six conservators and up to four languages spoken in the lab.  Although language barriers can pose some difficulty, the varied training and experience of the conservators facilitates the exchange of ideas and re-evaluation of conservation practice.

In addition to treating finds from the site—an impressive 500-700 per year—the Troy lab is also called upon to do emergency treatment at neighboring sites in the Granicus River Valley.  Donna emphasized that emergency conservation is about triage and compromise.  The needs of the objects must be prioritized, but the decision of what gets treated outside of Troy is often tied to local politics. The help of the Troy team is often sought in response to or in anticipation of looting, an example of which is the Dedetepe Tumulus, dating to the 5th c. BCE.   In the course of their work, the Troy conservators discovered, among other things, the fingerprints of ancient robbers on the marble sarcophagus, painted marble beds, and a shattered alabaster vessel with resides of Tyrian purple; the latter may provide direct evidence of a funeral ceremony that involved dipping ribbons into purple dye and tying them around a vessel.  Donna then went on to describe several other Granicus River Valley projects:

  • The Polyxena Sarcophagus, with associated remains of a funeral cart
  • The Parion necropolis, where they found a physician’s burial that included a medicine box with arsenic and lead-containing pills (“a Roman Dr. Kevorkian,” Donna suggested)
  • The beautifully painted Çan Sarcophagus with interesting examples of damnatio memoriae, which looters broke into with a backhoe(!).
  • The sites and artifacts receiving emergency care from the Troy team are not always associated with ancient cultures—at the site of the WWI Battle of Gallipoli, a leather shoe was found with the remains of a foot still inside.  Although Donna suggested reburial, the Gallipoli Museum wanted the “object” on view as a reminder of the horrors of war.  Although Donna, and probably many of us in the audience, would consider reburial to be a more ethical decision, she reminded us how important it is to be sensitive to the customs and desires of the country you’re working in.

These case studies were wonderful illustrations of both the difficulties and benefits of emergency conservation.  Emergency excavations, Donna said, are rarely scientifically excavated, there is rarely time to plan, and you’re often working with unfamiliar people and objects.  However, without this important work, the wealth of information contained in these sites and artifacts might be lost entirely.  The finds from Granicus River Valley projects are regularly published in the Studia Troica, giving these objects (which generally languish in storage or worse) a place in the archaeological record.  At the end of her talk, Donna showed a recent picture of Dedeteppe Tumulus, completely destroyed by looters—a powerful reminder of just how essential emergency conservation can be.

In the question period, Tony Sigel, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture at the Harvard Art Museums, said that his rule of thumb is to generally make any modern damage to an object as invisible as possible.  He asked Donna if she considered inpainting the damage done by the looters with the backhoe.  Donna replied that she would not choose to inpaint for two reasons: she did not want observers to think that the conservators were “repainting” the sarcophagus, and she thought it was important to demonstrate just how much damage looting does.