Intersecting conservation approaches to ethnographic and contemporary art: Ephemeral art at the National Museum of African Art

Stephanie E. Hornbeck


At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAFA), conservators apply our experience with preserving ethnographic materials to contemporary works in the collection, and vice versa. While contemporary African art shares significant aspects with global contemporary art trends, materials, and media, it has become apparent to conservators, who work with ethnographic materials, that contemporary objects also share many characteristics with tradition-based objects. These include: the use of composite media on a single object; the use of re-purposed materials; the use of fugitive materials; and the elaborate constructions of temporal installations. My conservation colleagues Steve Mellor, Dana Moffett and I at NMAFA have found that the ethnographic conservator’s repertoire and familiarity with the wide range of materials found in anthropological collections is readily applicable to aspects of the conservation of contemporary art. Drawing on a number of African tradition-based and contemporary objects case studies, this paper aims to present an overview of the key conservation issues and challenges that ephemeral media have presented at the Museum.

The permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art includes both tradition-based and contemporary objects, which sometimes employ fugitive materials or media that render them ephemeral. Among these exists a smaller grouping of objects which are ephemeral by design. To comprehensively fulfill its mission to collect and preserve the visual arts of Africa, NMAFA began acquiring contemporary works in the 1990s, while continuing to collect tradition-based art. The Museum has subsequently amassed the largest public collection of contemporary African art in the United States. Since 1997, a large gallery has been devoted to contemporary African art, in which rotating exhibitions are always on view.

Ephemeral materials pose challenges on conceptual and practical levels to the conservators faced with their display, treatment, and preservation. Indeed, the concept of ephemeral-by-design stands in direct opposition to the major tenet of conservation: the preservation of cultural patrimony for future generations. The conservation challenges inherent to ephemeral art have been addressed by a number of conservation conferences and attendant publications. Issues of unpredictability, permanence, and deterioration processes particular to ephemeral materials, as well as particular legal and ethical conservation considerations, have been widely discussed by conservators.

Working with art created by living artists, as we navigate between the sometimes-competing demands of preservation of the physical art work and respect of artistic intent, involves complex issues. These may include: artistic intent, conservation ethics, historicity, authenticity, functionality, exhibition installation, and the preservation of original materials vs. (sometimes) complete restoration. The conservation process can be protracted, involving an interdisciplinary team consisting of conservators, conservation scientists, curators, anthropologists, artists, artisans, studio assistants, fabricators, and gallerists.

The ethnographic object conservator’s wide knowledge of materials is particularly suited to the conservation of categories of contemporary art and we look forward to continued collaborations with our conservation colleagues, who focus on contemporary art. This paper’s juxtapositions of African tradition-based and contemporary art examples will address these topics: the challenges of the ephemeral-by-design concept; the complexity of contemporary installations; the conservator as artist’s surrogate; and both shared and divergent aspects of ethnographic and contemporary art conservation, as applied to ephemeral art.

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2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20