Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis–Sanchita Balachandran

[What follows is the full text of the talk given by Sanchita Balachandran in the General Session “Confronting the Unexpected” at the 44th AIC Annual Meeting on May 16, 2016. Not all images used in the presentation are shown here.]

Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis

December 15th, 2015, 4:45pm.  Baltimore City Hall.  The building twinkled with Christmas lights and flashes from the roofs of police cars lined up along E. Fayette Street. Across War Memorial Plaza, on N. Gay Street, television vans were hunkered down. A few correspondents stood, microphones in hand, in harsh halos from the glare of camera lights, against the District Court of Maryland. It was the night that a jury was expected to return a verdict on the trial of police officer William Porter, the first of six defendants charged with causing the death of Freddie Gray, a twenty-five year old black man who died in police custody on April 19th, 2015.   It was Freddie Gray’s death—yet another in a growing list of young unarmed black people killed by law enforcement—that had catalyzed the violence in Baltimore, that mobilized heavily armed state troopers to the city for three days.  But I wasn’t there for the Porter verdict.  I’d had the luxury of forgetting that it was being deliberated behind closed doors.  Instead, I had come to listen to public testimony, an open airing of anger, frustration and love about different black bodies, the darkly patinated bronzes of Confederate monuments erected on city property.  I’d come for a meeting of the Commission to Review Baltimore’s Public Confederate Monuments.


Nearly every academic discipline has acknowledged that objects have multiple values and meanings, that they embody relationships, histories, memories and identities.  But the concept of multiple meanings and resonances of objects is often an abstract one, something left to imagine rather than viscerally experience.  And in our own field of art conservation, we have been slow to recognize that objects are not merely a sum of the materials they are made from, but rather, that their “intangible” values may in fact be as important, if not more important than the tangible heritage we’ve trained to conserve.  But to the nearly fifty people who testified on the night of December 15th, the intangible and tangible were densely intertwined.  It was the same over-life size bronzes that functioned as works of art, as symbols of love and resilience, as markers of oppression and hatred, and reminders that white supremacy over enslaved black people remained a vivid memory on the contemporary landscape.

A biracial teenager of African American heritage spoke of standing on her porch and seeing the Confederate flag unfurled in front of the Lee and Jackson Monument year after year on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.  Representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans countered, saying that Lee and Jackson also had birthdays in January, as did MLK, Jr. Young activists suggested inviting Baltimore city students to re-cast the bronze into objects of their choosing.  There were proposals to leave the sculptures in place with new signage, to replace them with images of prominent African Americans, to auction them to the highest white supremacist bidder and use the recovered funds for Baltimore schools. As I listened, it was clear that while it was the intangible heritage that the sculptures represented that was under attack, it was the tangible heritage, the objects themselves that would bear the blows.  Destroying the thing might destroy the memory, for better or worse.


As the United States of America cries out about the pain, anger, pride and oppression that Confederate monuments represent, we conservators are considering their original casting techniques or identifying the best poultices for removing “Black Lives Matter” from them.  As discussions of race, diversity and politics infuse our daily lives—from the American presidential election to the claim that the Academy Awards were “#oscarssowhite”—our own field has remained largely silent.  Instead, as cultural institutions and museums are struggling to remain relevant, the conservation profession has continued to devote its focus to technical questions and solutions.  Our rapid embrace of new treatments, imaging techniques and analytical methods stands in stark contrast to the lack of engagement with the social and political concerns that swirl around the objects we are called upon to preserve.  Unlike unexpected cataclysmic events such as World War II, the Florence Flood, or the 2010 Haiti earthquake, all of which mobilized conservators who put themselves in harm’s way to preserve cultural heritage, our contemporary crisis remains invisible and unacknowledged.

Our crisis is one of desperate urgency, but it has gone unconfronted from the safety of our benches, beyond the field of view of our Optivisors and microscopes, in large part because we have been unwilling or unprepared to see the problems even within our own profession.  In the forty-fourth year of the American Institute for Conservation, it is time to recognize the ways in which conservation routinely excludes certain hands, voices, perspectives, histories and legacies.

We are professional conservators.  We abide by our Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. We preserve objects for future generations. We are doing the right thing. We have the privilege of an unfettered access to objects and collections, with the authority to change or even erase a previous intervention on an object with the sweep of a cotton swab, the stoke of a brush, or an adjustment on a pressure-washer. It is precisely because we can claim this kind of authority, privilege, and power that we must re-examine the very core of who we are, what we do, and why we work.  It is precisely because we have the ability and authority to maintain, change or erase histories, stories, memories and identities through our interventions on objects, sites and collections that we must re-engage with three key questions: Who are we? Whose objects are we conserving? Why does conservation matter?

Who are we?

The most recent document to explicitly ask who is racially represented, or not represented, in the American Institute for Conservation is the 1993 AIC Strategic Planning Questionnaire.   In the intervening twenty-two years, not enough has changed.  The 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey found that “non-Hispanic White staff continue to dominate the job categories most closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including those of curators, conservators, educators, and leadership.”

One of the more troubling findings of the survey is that the percentages of staff from underrepresented communities in leadership roles in the museum have remained unchanged over the past three decades. To quote Mariet Westermann, Vice President of the Mellon Foundation, “Diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures. It also indicates that the nation will need more programs that encourage students of color to pursue graduate education in preparation for museum positions.”

I am the product of an educational pipeline.  As a college freshman, I received a paid Getty Foundation Multicultural Undergraduate Internship that introduced me to the field of art conservation.  As a child of immigrants who were middle class but struggling to put me through college, I could not have afforded an unpaid summer internship to pursue my love of art history.  Art was a hobby, a distracting indulgence as I finished my medical school requirements, as my college debt mounted on my parents’ and my shoulders.  When I applied to conservation graduate school in my senior year of college, much to the genuine terror of my parents who had sacrificed so much to make sure that I would get a job, I knew that I had only one chance to make it.  If I got into conservation school, and I got funding, I could go.  I got in. I got funding. I went.

Many of my colleagues and I now joke that we would never get into graduate school.  But when we consider the lack of historically underrepresented minorities in conservation, we must acknowledge the existing practices that year by year, keep them out. The experience of the average applicant today is staggering, often gained over years of barely paid or even unpaid preparatory work.  If these same expectations had been in place twenty years ago, I would not be a conservator. For those high achieving underrepresented minorities who graduate from college with the option of different educational pipelines, conservation school seems an irresponsible choice given what a trained conservator can expect to earn in the early years of one’s career.  After four years of training, my first post-graduate one-year position paid $18,000. It was almost a decade before I gained my first permanent position. Those in the audience of my generation and those younger may recognize their own career trajectories in my experience.  Many professional paths are highly competitive and their outcomes uncertain, but within our own field, we must consider how we select and support young conservators, particularly those from minority and lower socio-economic backgrounds.

But “diversity” should not be misunderstood as a desire for simply changing the range of skin tones in our profession for the sake of appearances. Diversity means much more. Decades of research in numerous fields have shown that more socially diverse groups are more creative, innovative and productive than less diverse ones, but within conservation, the need for this diversity is all the more vital because of the kind of work we do.  There is much at stake at not having a diverse group of conservators responsible for the preservation of the cultural heritage of humankind.  Conservators preserve not only the physical aspects of objects, we also preserve the histories, memories and legacies that objects represent.  Unlike the factual or tangible aspects of objects, these intangible aspects are all the more fragile, and subject to be changed or lost if we are not attentive to them.   A more diverse group of conservators brings different life experiences, other cultural perspectives, and broader social networks to bear on the cultural heritage we preserve.  Such a community also makes possible the challenging of assumptions and accepted ways of practice within the field that may in fact privilege particular kinds of cultural heritage while erasing others.

Consider the work of Shadreck Chirikure, Tawanda Mukwende and Pascall Taruvinga, who through their authority as heritage professionals, balanced the desire of the Khami people of Zimbabwe and South Africa to maintain their spiritual sites as undisturbed, “unmonumental” areas, but also worked with them to minimally stabilize areas so that they can retain their World Heritage status. Consider the work of Sanjay Dhar, whose work with Buddhist practitioners in northeast India recognizes the conditions and parameters under which the repainting of images is required so that they can continue to function in their religious contexts.[1] Consider Andrew Thorn’s work with the Jawoyn people of Australia, whose sacred sites could not be documented with photographs and drawings because such representations posed potential threats to both his and the Jawoyn peoples’ physical and spiritual safety.[2] These examples, all from outside North America, show the way that our conceptual framework for preserving the cultural heritage of humankind can and should expand to encompass a more diverse set of conservation professionals and community stakeholders, but also a more diverse understanding of what is important to conserve.

Whose objects are we conserving?


Last year, I had the privilege of working with a group of young curatorial students at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Curating the Archive and the Iziko Museums of South Africa.  Only three months before, the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes had been toppled from its perch at the university following student protest. It was just weeks after the hate crime that left nine African Americans dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The alleged killer had worn the Confederate flag, and the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid era South Africa, the latter two synonymous with white supremacy.  We were talking about whether there was a symbol that all South Africans could embrace and call their own.  After a few moments of silence, one of the white South African male students suggested, “the land.”  None of the black students in the class responded.  Under apartheid, land ownership was a primarily white privilege.  But these black South African students, the generation of so-called “Born Frees,” the first born after apartheid, still could not claim land as either property or symbol.

The Preamble to our Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice states that our primary goal is the “preservation of cultural property.”  But whose property? As conservators, we often speak of collections as our own—“my collection” or “my site”—even though they they do not belong to us.  But to whom do collections and sites belong? Do they belong to the institutions and individuals who had the political, economic and lawful means to collect them, or do they also belong to the original makers and users? Two United States federal laws enacted in 1990 complicated the concept of ownership of objects that might come to belong to someone other than the original maker.  The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) asserted that artists hold moral rights and authorship over their own works no matter who legally owns them; and it gives artists the right to pursue legal action against those who compromise either the physical or conceptual integrity of their works.  Also passed the same year as VARA was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that provided a process for museums to return human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects to descendants of their original makers and users.

In the twenty-six years since these laws have been enacted, our profession has been forced to change its practices, engaging artists and Native American communities in collections management and conservation treatments in unprecedented ways.  Not all of these interactions are comfortable or collaborative, but these legal mandates have forced us to confront the fact that the collections we call our own in fact came from elsewhere, and from someone else.  In the field of modern and contemporary art conservation, the recognition of the moral right of the original maker has driven new and creative forms of documentation and information sharing about the material requirements, but more importantly, the conceptual requirements of art works. It has also resulted in collaborative partnerships between conservators and artists, with the conservators often entrusted with ensuring the preservation of the conceptual integrity of the artist’s work, rather than simply its physical integrity. Unfortunately, this same creativity, resolve and belief in the primacy of preserving the conceptual integrity of Native American objects is taken less seriously by our profession other than in a few institutions. Native American communities are rarely treated with the same respect that modern and contemporary artists are in the museum, except for in a few institutions.

To make sense of this lack of parity, we must confront the unequal ways that objects come into an institution for collection, conservation and display. The fields of anthropology and museum studies, have for the past several decades, acknowledged the fact that their disciplines were complicit in the colonial and imperial projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Anthropology, with its scientific method of writing ethnographies and collecting ethnographic objects, was predicated on the idea that certain cultures would soon be destroyed, and those histories, traditions and objects required documentation, categorization and preservation.  Since the 1970s, anthropologists have been working to recognize and engage with the fact that their field was implicated in the annihilation of certain kinds of stories and in the oppression of peoples they categorized as “other” or “lesser.”  Scholars in museum studies have acknowledged that the museum was fully embedded in the colonial and imperial enterprise, and its daily processes of collecting, curating and yes, conserving objects perpetuated this colonialism and racism, and asserted the dominance of white Euro-American cultures over others.

But we as conservators have yet to engage in a conversation that has been happening beyond our field for nearly half a century. Because we, too, were implicated.

Consider the work of the giants of our field, George Leslie Stout and Rutherford Gettens.  Between 1928 and 1930, they developed methodologies, techniques and materials to be used on a Harvard University expedition to Western China that had the express intent of removing wall paintings from ancient sites for the Fogg Museum; in their writings on the subject, both Stout and Gettens were unsettled by the idea of tearing objects from their original contexts, and and the damage that this might cause, but the fact remains that their research and technical knowledge was essential to the larger imperial project of removing cultural heritage from the Chinese, who were thought incapable of preserving it.[3] As conservators, we have always assumed that our technical skills and knowledge will be used for a greater good, but what Stout and Gettens recognized nearly a century ago was that these same skills and knowledge could be deployed in more sinister ways.  So we were implicated in these troubling practices, and by not acknowledging our past, we still are.

So to say in our Code of Ethics that our primary goal is the preservation of property affirms our responsibility to the now legal owner.  It is to tacitly accept the violence which has systematically removed and disenfranchised people from their cultural heritage.  We accept that the cultural property we now steward is housed in buildings erected on land legally taken from Native American and First Nations peoples, the same peoples whose representation in positions of museum leadership today is statistically zero.  By abiding by the term cultural property rather than heritage, we also forget the fact that property once did not just concern objects and sites.  Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, whose monument still stands in Baltimore City, wrote on March 6, 1857 in the Dred Scott decision that any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, was not a citizen of the United States.  He also affirmed the right of slave owners to claim their slaves as property.  It is this legacy that activists are responding to by tagging Confederate monuments.  It is this legacy that we preserve by removing the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

Why Does Conservation Matter?

Today, cultural heritage is regularly in the headlines for its destruction, not its conservation.  The destruction of archaeological sites and art objects captures the public’s attention rather than the bloodshed, forced migration and trauma of hundreds of thousands of people from these same places.  Shortly after the recapture of Palmyra, Syria, from Islamic State extremists in March of this year, there was discussion of restoring the ancient edifices razed during occupation.  But why do these places and objects matter when there are so many urgent crises? Why is their conservation and preservation needed?
Because cultural heritage, not cultural property, can still be claimed by even those communities that have been traumatized and marginalized, and systematically and legally oppressed and annihilated for generations.  As long as a tangible link exists between people and their past, there remains hope for a more just and dignified present and future.

Consider Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project, which reclaims the forgotten domestic spaces of peoples enslaved in the United States from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Sleeping here affirms that these places and these people matter.

Consider the 2015 return of the name Denali, “The Great One”, to the mountain sacred to native Alaskans, one hundred and nineteen years after both the land and the name were taken from them by the United States government.

Consider the announcement that the site of the Stonewall Inn will receive National Landmark Status in June of this year, acknowledging the struggle for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people that began here forty-seven years ago.

Consider the Multaka or “meeting point” program which provides Arabic-speaking tours of sites and objects from Iraq and Syria at the Berlin Museums so that refugees can see glimpses of a home they may never be able to return to.

As long as these tangible sites and objects exist, there is evidence that people were here, that their histories, their memories and their past mattered, and that they are still here, still matter, and will continue to matter in the future.  Our role as conservators can and should be to protect and conserve these tangible links, to affirm our belief in the dignity and human rights of all people.  But we cannot approach the preservation of cultural heritage with the naïve statement that “all lives matter” or “all cultural heritage matters”, because history has shown us again and again that some lives, and some cultural heritage has been allowed to matter far more than others’.  If we believe that conservation has a role to play in pursuing social justice, then it means changing the way we work. It means recognizing that we are stewards of collections through historical and political circumstance; that our authority can be both utilized for the cause of equality, but also abused. It also means that while we may be authorized to physically conserve collections, they and the histories and stories they represent also belong to the people who claim them.  Instead, our work has to support and make possible the right of people to tell, sing and perform their own narratives of their own cultural heritage.

Our profession is at a turning point.  We can maintain the status quo as the world changes around us, making us even less vital to the urgent concerns of the day.  Or we can acknowledge our own past, and begin to think and work differently in the present. What is at stake here is not what conservation is, but what conservation could be.

Conservation in the twenty-first century can no longer just be about objects.  Conservation also has to be about the people whose lives are inscribed on them.



[1] Dhar, S. “Challenges in the context of the living sacred tradition of Mahayana Buddhism”. The object in context: Contributions to the 2006 IIC Congress, Munich, 2006: 151-155.

[2] Thorn, A. “Access denied: Restricted access to indigenous cultural sites.” Conservation and Access: Contributions to the 2008 IIC Congress, London, 2008: 209-213.

[3] Balachandran, S. “Object Lessons: The Politics of Preservation and Museum Building in Western China in the Early Twentieth Century.” International Journal of Cultural Property, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2007): 1-32.