39th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, June 1st, “Archaeologists and Avocational Conservators: Compromising Principles or Increasing Awareness?” by Susanne Grieve

This year, a portion of the OSG sessions focused on archaeological conservation and the ethics and issues surrounding the conservation of these materials.  The paper presented by Susanne Grieve focused on avocational conservators and how much information do we give to non-conservators who are practicing conservation, something that was touched upon in the panel discussion organized by the Archaeological Discussion Group of the OSG on ethical issues in archaeological field conversation held earlier that day.

Avocational conservators were described as members of the general public who undertake conservation treatments as a hobby or out of interest for preserving something.  They have no formal training in conservation.  In her presentation, Susanne talked about working with a group of avocational conservators in Namibia who help preserve maritime sites and artifacts in the country.  The group is made up of members of the the Windhoek Underwater Club’s (WUC) Maritime Archaeology Division who come from varied background with no formal training in archaeology or conservation.

Susanne brought up some interesting questions and issues as she talked about her experiences working with the WUC.  Conservators have worked for 39 years to make conservation a profession.  We have formalized training, a code of ethics and protocols and standards that form the basis of the profession.  Her questions in regards to the conservation profession and avocational conservators is: Do we work with these groups? How much training do we give them? And do we compromise our profession by working with or training these people?

In regards to the situation in Namibia, there is only 1 conservator responsible for all the cultural material there.  This means that there is not enough staff and resources to get everything done.  The avocational conservators do the work they do because it is very important to them that this part of Nambian culture and history be preserved and they have an interest and passion in doing so.  And I’m sure they feel that because of the limited resources there, they can help fill that need.

Susanne’s work with the WUC involved working with them on the excavation of a mining camp site and the conservation of material found there.  The club felt the site was important for them to preserve because the government was not interested in preserving it.  The camp site was from a German mining operation and places like these are not preserved because it is a part of Namibia’s past people want to forget.  Susanne worked on site with them and taught them about excavation and lifting techniques. They then took artifacts back to the lab where she taught them some basic methods for preserving books and ledgers collected from the site.  She also looked at some previously treated artifacts that had been conserved using outdated methods and  shared information on other approaches.  Before leaving she left some conservation materials with the group.

Susanne’s paper touched upon issues that many conservators deal with when having to work with non-conservators in resource poor institutions.  These kinds of questions often come up in working with archaeologists as well.  In the case of the conservation of maritime sites and artifacts in Namibia, it seems that the WUC are the only group at the moment who can preserve this material.  The infrastructure and resources don’t seem to exist to allow for conservation professionals to do this kind of work.  There is too much to preserve and not enough trained people to do it.  So does that mean that we, as conservators, don’t do anything because working with avocational conservators would compromise our profession?  It doesn’t seem like these questions could be easily answered, but this talk does bring up important questions that as a profession should be discussed because many of us have to deal with issues such as these.

Susanne summed up her talk with what I think is a good approach to these questions and something as an archaeological conservator, I agree with.  She felt that the answer to the questions she posed should be considered on a case by case basis.  If the person you may be working with is interested in selling artifacts, then you shouldn’t share your knowledge.  However if the purpose is to educate people, especially in countries with no resources or professionals, then perhaps we should share our knowledge and skills.  In regards to working with archaeologists, it is important for them to see archaeological conservation as a profession.  They need to value the knowledge and skills we can contribute.  Susanne’s suggestion is to continue to work with archaeologists so that this type of thinking starts to change.  And I couldn’t agree more with this idea.