AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Objects and Research and Technical Studies Joint Session, May 9, “The Qero Project: Conservation and Science Collaboration over Time,” by Emily Kaplan et al.

Emily Kaplan (Presenter), Objects Conservator, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; email:

Ellen Howe, Conservator, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art; email:

Ellen Pearlstein, Associate Professor, Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, UCLA; email:

Judith Levinson, Director of Conservation, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History; email:

The qero research project is a seventeen-year-long collaboration among object conservators at four museums with qeros in their collections: the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI, NMAI). Emily Kaplan (SI, NMAI) presented an update of the research to date on behalf of her co-investigators, Ellen Howe (MMA), Ellen Pearlstein (formerly Brooklyn Museum, now GCI-UCLA), and Judith Levinson (AMNH). The project is an in-depth technical study of materials and techniques of fabrication of a corpus of qeros, polychrome wood drinking vessels fabricated around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532; the qeros in these four collections date from the Inca period (13th-15th c.), through the Colonial period (16th-19th c).  Consequently, the qeros offer material culture insights produced over a span of centuries and reflect the influences of both indigenous cultures and Spanish colonizers.  Principal goals of the project involved: understanding techniques of fabrication, the analytical identification of materials, and the correlation of the technical data with the stylistic data proposed by others (i.e. curators, art historians).

The qero project was an apt presentation for the joint OSG-RATS  session. Kaplan articulately presented the cultural history of the vessels, as well as the technical research undertaken by numerous conservation scientists, principally at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Indeed, both cultural and scientific research were presented in nearly equal measure, which underscored the efforts of the primary researchers to cover both aspects in depth.  Efforts at replication of techniques of manufacture, cultural exchanges with colleagues and artisans in Peru, and the application of the full arsenal of analytical  methods employed (including FTIR, GC-MS, PLM, XRD, and XRF) were discussed.  Kaplan noted that YouTube videos exist showing contemporary Columbian artisans in Pasto working with the sheets of resin.  The presentation was accompanied by quite beautifully photographed images of the vessels themselves, comprised of tropical woods with polychrome resinous inlays, which illustrate geometric (Inca) and figural (Colonial) design registers of increasing complexity.

Funding from the MMA and NMAI allowed Kaplan and Howe to travel to Peru to meet Andean artists and scholars; to collect raw materials; and to visit private and public collections.  Eventually botanical samples of the plant elaeagia were correlated via FTIR and GC-MS to the mopa-mopa resin noted in early literature and the samples from qeros.  Interestingly, the palette was identified as largely unchanged from the pre-Colonial period.  Colorants identified include cinnabar red, orpiment yellow, cochineal red and pink, indigo blue, copper-based greens, carbon black, lead white and titanium white.  A notable, recent reassessment is the meaning of the analytical identification of titanium white (cristobalite anatase in mineral form) on some vessels.  Early in the project, the noted presence of titanium white—a  pigment that found wide usage only in the 20th century—was  thought to indicate areas of restoration.  Further study focusing on the presence of elaeagia in the media, led the conservators to believe it to be a pre-Colonial pigment.  A known Andean ore does exist.

Current research questions involve study of the ore source(s) of the cristobalite anatase and pigment comparisons to Colonial Andean paintings.  Further, the research and data collection evolved with technological advances and the collaborators are now considering ways to aggregate and share the data on-line.

This research project can be seen as a model for other conservation projects involving multiple institutions.  The sustained curiosity about these objects inspired a prolonged inter-museum collaborative effort , involving international allied professionals.  I’ve followed the progress of the qero project over the years, attending presentations and watching the list of publications in the US and South America grow longer and longer, as new findings emerged.  Near the beginning of the project (which started in 1995), while a graduate conservation student at New York University, I participated for two years as a research assistant on the project.  The concerted efforts to study both historical techniques of fabrication and the scientific results of analytical testing represent for me why the qero project ideally embodies the captivating interdisciplinary aspects of the conservation profession.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Outreach Session, May 11, “Communicating the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project: Outreach and Reportage,” by Stephanie Hornbeck, Eric Pourchot, Viviana Dominguez, Junior Norelus and Saori Kawasumi


Stephanie Hornbeck (Chief Conservator, Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project), moderator  and panelist; email:; web:

Viviana Dominguez (Co-Director St. Trinity murals conservation project; Painting Conservator, Haiti Cultural Recovery Center) panelist; email:; web:

Eric Pourchot (Director of Institutional Advancement, AIC), panelist; email:;  web:

Junior Norelus (Chief Conservation Technician, Holy Trinity Murals Conservation Project), panelist; email:

Saori Kawasumi, (Third Year Student, Buffalo State College Art Conservation Program), panelist; email:

Note: Rosa Lowinger (Co-Director St. Trinity murals conservation project), intended moderator. Rosa conceived of the session topic but could ultimately not attend this AIC Annual Meeting due to a scheduling conflict.


The Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Project was an 18-month long international, collaborative effort to recover the damaged cultural patrimony from Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.  Fifty (50) conservators and collection managers in staff, contract and volunteer capacities participated in the effort.  Twenty public and private institutions received conservation assistance.  Ultimately, 30,000 works of art, documents, books and monuments were stabilized.

Our project was a large, international project with many participants and as such, it can be seen to be an example of the media challenges faced by comparable large conservation projects.  We hoped in sharing our experiences to inform the conservation community and ideally to encourage improvements with future presentations of conservation information to diverse audiences and media outlets.

This outreach session presented the myriad ways in which the Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Center project was reported and communicated- both to the conservation field and to the general public.  The panelists consisted of individuals who worked on the project in different capacities and wrote about it and/ or reported it through conferences, seminars, interviews, press conferences, blogging and other reportage.

Among the places where this project was internationally reported or communicated include print (the book Saving Haiti’s Heritage: Cultural Recovery After the Earthquake by Richard Kurin, 2011; The New York Times, ARTnews, The Art Newspaper, AICNews, Haitian newspapers), television (“The Today Show,” upcoming program on Smithsonian Channel in December 2012), radio (NPR), various Internet sites (Smithsonian website, US Committee of the Blue Shield website,, Episcopal News Service, and c-monster), Facebook  and blog posts,  professional presentations and panels and press conferences.

The primary objective was to discuss how conservation information is disseminated and portrayed in diverse media and how we as conservators, who were involved with this project, helped to communicate particular aspects of the project and dealt with repercussions of the information being distributed. We discussed the ways in which information about the project was tailored to specific audiences and shared anecdotes of how a lack of information control was sometimes problematic.

The challenges of accurately presenting technical conservation information to a non-specialist audience were presented.  In a discussion of formal media interactions, the primary challenge is how the project’s activities can be accurately reported by an outside party, like a reporter, journalist, documentarian, etc.  It can be a frustrating experience to give a long interview only to see the full context go by the wayside in the editing process.  The opportunity to see draft copy of external publications is very rare indeed.  Yet, when errors, omissions and inadequate acknowledgements ensue, they can be difficult to correct after the fact and might cause offense.

Internal challenges/conflicts regarding the presentation of project information also arose, presenting significant complications, as they bring colleagues into conflict.  Incidents occurred where volunteer conservators overstepped their roles without getting proper permission before photographing, filming, and recording projects to which they were not attached.  In these cases, neither the project manager nor the proprietor of the collection in question were  asked in advance about filming and appropriate photo/film credits. The almost-instantaneous dissemination of information now possible with social media, makes it even more important to be cautious, considerate, and professional before uploading material on-line.

At times, disagreements arose with our Haitian project colleagues regarding the presentation and dissemination of project conservation information.  In attempting to resolve the situation, requests were made that staff conservators write all conservation-related articles and that the internal review of all press releases include conservators prior to their distribution.  These requests were met inconsistently. Other US-funded conservation projects that occur in foreign countries likely encounter similar struggles over imparting conservation information, sharing or acknowledging credit, and in claiming ownership of project successes.


 –  What are the challenges of presenting conservation/technical information to a general audience?

–  Our project had a large number of participants working in volunteer, contract and staff capacities. To what degree should dissemination of project information to various audiences and media outlets be controlled/regulated?  Is it even possible to control the dissemination of information?

– How did actual reportage outcomes reflect desired communication outcomes?  Was “the message” conveyed accurately? Did the relevant parties receive appropriate acknowledgement?

 – Who are appropriate “spokespeople?”  Should any project participant feel free to speak about the project publicly?  Or, should restrictions be implemented?


 Stephanie Hornbeck presented the topic:  “Representing the Smithsonian in Formal Media Outlets and Overview of Project Efforts to Present to the Media.” As Chief Conservator for the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project she served as the Port-au-Prince-based project liaison to the Smithsonian.  In addition to her conservation responsibilities, Stephanie was one of the official contacts for the project and as such could be contacted variously by a conservator, a media representative or an individual person, in the general public. As is likely true for other conservators, who serve as official personnel for a large, international effort, the role of media communicator was only one aspect of her job.  Although the project’s resident conservator first and foremost, outreach communication of project conservation efforts was of critical importance and did require her regular attention. Serving in an official capacity, she approached the role of information dissemination formally. Her primary responsibilities in communication efforts were to provide information about the dire state of damage to Haiti’s cultural and artistic property, to communicate the project’s global conservation objectives, to report on project conservation efforts underway, and to present project conservation results achieved.  Stephanie  also needed to support the larger mission of the project and to emphasize our collaborative efforts both in Haiti and with American and international conservation experts. She encountered media communication challenges internally among project personnel over the authorship and review of project conservation information and the acknowledgement of conservators in project successes.

Eric Pourchot (Director of Institutional Advancement, AIC), presented the topic AIC’s role in publicizing the Haiti project.  His paper title, “You Don’t Have to Call me  Darlin’, Darlin’, but You Didn’t Even Use my Name,” wittily referenced the importance of acknowledgement.  Eric addressed how AIC—an integral partner in the Haiti project, coordinating AIC volunteer conservator deployments and supply procurement—was represented by the media.  He emphasized how the actual media coverage could sometimes differ significantly from the desired message.  Media coverage about the Haiti project was an opportunity to provide information about AIC to the general public, an opportunity that sometimes went awry through omission.  He also noted how initially the project sponsor, the Smithsonian Institution, controlled the media message exclusively.  AIC was one of thirteen partners in the Haiti project, supporting to various degrees the collaboration of the sponsors: the Smithsonian and the Government of Haiti.  Eric noted that the Haiti project was a complex network of partnerships and project objectives and media outlets tend to prefer concise renderings.  The perpetual issues of shaping the message and of receiving proper acknowledgement resonated for others, who participate in large, multi-institutional conservation collaborations.

Viviana Dominguez (Co-Director St. Trinity murals conservation project; painting conservator, Haiti Cultural Recovery Center) presented the topic of conveying technical conservation information about the St. Trinity Murals Conservation Project in Haiti and at international (non-US) venues. She briefly introduced the fourteen murals painted by famous Haitian artists that originally decorated the cathedral interior and how the team, composed of six local artists and two professional conservators (Viviana and Rosa Lowinger), rescued the only three standing murals that survived the earthquake.  Viviana proceeded to describe how a February 2011 article about the conservation project published in The New York Times, a year after the earthquake ( immediately drew international news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press to the site. In addition, the project was presented to the local media during two press conferences in Haiti. Viviana addressed the challenges of accurately presenting technical conservation information to a non-specialist audience and the creative ways she incorporated her team of Haitian technicians to present the information to the Haitian public. The mutely-cultural presenters, including Richard Kurin (Smithsonian Institution Under Secretary) Olsen Jean-Julian (Cultural Recovery Center Manager) the Haitian Archbishop of the cathedral, the ministers of Tourism and Culture.  Both conferences were broadcast on the national news channels and in newspapers. Viviana and Rosa also presented the project to conservation peers in conferences abroad in Argentina, Barbados, Canada, Peru, and Spain.

 Junior Norelus (Chief Technician, St. Trinity murals conservation project) presented the topic of communicating the St. Trinity Murals Conservation Project in Haiti to non-conservation specialists via Haitian media outlets.  On our project, our Haitian colleagues served as liaisons to Haitian professionals in the culture sector, to the Haitian press, and to the general public. This communication conduit was critical to successfully building interest in the project and to conveying accurate information in the Kreyol and French languages spoken in Haiti. A professional artist, Junior described how his own thinking regarding preservation evolved through working on the Smithsonian project for a year. He also described the impact his television appearance had on his family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, who became immediately interested on the project, presenting him opportunities to explain the importance of conserving Haitian cultural patrimony, a new concept in Haiti.

 Saori Kawasumi (third year student, Buffalo program, student intern, Haiti Cultural Recovery Center) presented the topic of the student’s perspective in connecting to multiple communities.  She contrasted her more informal, “bottom-up” communication efforts to the formal “top-down” efforts described by Stephanie and Eric.  Her information-sharing involved discussions with professional colleagues and peers, reading and sharing blog posts, and telling anecdotes about her daily life on the project to family and friends.  Saori described how her assigned project involved working on a daily basis with a Haitian conservation assistant and the challenges of being an instructor to him, even as she was a student herself. As one of two graduate conservation students (with Cindy Lee Scott), who spent July 2011 on the Haiti project, Saori expressed how students can contribute uniquely to a large project. Even as the Haiti project seemed daunting to her at the outset, she realized that as a member of the upcoming generation of professional conservators, her contributions were valued and the experience may serve her in the future.


An engaging, forty-minute discussion period followed the panel presentations.  A number of AIC Haiti volunteer conservators were in attendance and many contributed their thoughts on the subjects presented. In addition to several questions regarding transition efforts of the project (which ended in December 2011); the following points were emphasized:

● As with the Haiti project, conservation projects that occur in foreign countries need to collaborate with local professionals for important outreach and communication efforts.

● Within a project, it is important to implement open internal communication about content and media distribution of press releases and other outreach communications.  Project conservators should write or vet all conservation information.

● Written communication guidelines for project participants would be useful. The guidelines should describe the project mission; the roles and contact information of key personnel; and guidance about photograph credits.

● Before publishing work—in print media or on-line—on a project, inform the project personnel and ask about appropriate credits to include.

● Even with more informal outlets, such as blogs and social media communication, professional consideration should be give to properly citing the project.

● Acknowledgement of the project sponsor, relevant partners, project personnel and collaborators is important. Spell names correctly and use accurate titles/affiliations.

● Prior permission to photograph works in a collection should be obtained from the museum curator/ director/collection proprietor.

● Images of works of art should include photo credits with the name of the photographer, the name of the collection to which it belongs, and if possible the title of the work.

● Share your publication with project personnel. They will likely be appreciative of the exposure, enthusiastic about your effort to publicize the project, and may increase the circulation of your publication.


For more information about the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, please see:

Richard Kurin’s book about the project is now available. Saving Haiti’s Heritage: Cultural Recovery after the Earthquake (Smithsonian Institution, 2011) includes numerous essay contributions by participating conservators.  More information about the book can be found on the website below.

The Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project website, has a webpage entirely devoted to the extensive media coverage, with links to articles included:

Stay tuned: the Smithsonian Channel (on Showtime) will present a television program on the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project in December 2012.

“The Journey to Recovery: A Tale of Earthquake Damage and Repair in Haiti,” by Stephanie Hornbeck and Viviana Dominguez. The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives, February 23, 2012. The story of the dramatic damage context and advanced treatment of a Stivenson Magloire painting broken into 22 fragments by the 2010 earthquake:

“Haiti Heritage Rescue Could Stall,” By Emily Sharpe. The Art Newspaper. Conservation, Issue 229, November 2011 Published online: 15 November 2011. Chief conservator stresses need for continuity of funding after handover to local authorities:

“Haiti’s Scars, and its Soul, Find Healing on Walls,” By Damien Cave. The New York Times. February 22, 2011. One of the project’s main initiatives, the removal of the wall paintings from St. Trinity Episcopal Church, received wide coverage, including this article: :

“The Art of Recovery,” cover story interview with Stephanie, Wellesley magazine (fall 2011):

Video clip from “The Today Show”:

Viviana’s blog overview of treating Haitian paintings:

Article describing Viviana’s presentation at Instituto Universitario Nacional de Arte Buenos Aires:

Rosa’s blog on the St. Trinity murals: