The conservation of Indigenous cultural material is a field that recognises the importance of cross-cultural communication. Through acknowledging and incorporating the Indigenous owners of cultural material in the preservation of their heritage, conservators, museums and researchers can establish processes of display and care in meaningful ways.
Video: Artists Steaphan Paton and Cam Cope talk about Boorun’s Canoe, a project to create and record the making of a traditional bark canoe exhibited at Bunjilaka, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.
Indigenous cultural material collections found in museums usually consist of objects grouped by the peoples, nations, or communities they originate from. Indigenous cultural materials can also be found in private collections and in research settings such as universities for anthropological study. Previously, the term ‘ethnographic’ has been used to describe objects in collections that originate from Indigenous cultures.
Contemporary conservation recognises that this term is restrictive, in that it associates a living culture with that of something that is intended to be studied and collected, and consequently has fallen out of favour in Australia.
Conservators working with Indigenous communities and Indigenous cultural heritage are interested in learning as much as possible about the context and usage of items belonging to particular groups or individuals, and cross-cultural collaboration is a major part of Indigenous cultural material conservation. As such cultural material was made to be used, understanding and encouraging their use in community as opposed to static objects behind a museum display case, guides the work of many contemporary conservators. The conservation of Indigenous cultural materials includes the preservation of intangible heritage through stories, language, song, practices, spaces and places.
Common types of deterioration
Materials found in Indigenous cultural heritage collections can vary greatly, including natural materials (plant fibres, resins, wood) to inorganic materials (stone, ceramic) and more contemporary (plastics, synthetic textiles). As some cultural material may include very fragile items such as feathers, skin and turtle shell, older objects may face many preservation issues to do with the inherent instability of organic materials.
Cultural material may also contain human remains, such as teeth, hair and bones, raising ethical issues for the conservator as the possible meaning of the object and its original use must be considered when displaying and undertaking a conservation treatment.
Composite materials found in single objects in cultural material collections means that chemical deterioration is often accelerated, for instance, when a metal or glass component corrodes onto a component made of wood or leather.
Biological damage such as mould and bacteria, or pest damage from rodents and insects can cause staining and structural damage to collections that have a high organic material content. Silver fish, clothes moths and wood-boring insects thrive in environments containing high relative humidity and feast on organic and animal-based materials.
Splitting, cracking and warping of organic materials such as wood, plant fibres, skins and textiles are common problems when humidity and temperature fluctuates in a storage or display environment.
Treatment of Indigenous cultural material collections often involves minimal intervention and instead focuses more on preventive conservation methods in order to make sure the storage and display requirements of the materials are met. This involves assessing and monitoring conditions within an environment such as light levels, temperature, humidity and air quality.
Maintaining a stable humidity and temperature means organic materials are less at risk of embrittlement and accelerated deterioration. Using conservation grade storage and display materials that are acid-free, chemically inert and provide adequate physical support to the objects within are an important part of the role of a conservator.
As in many areas of conservation, cleaning objects in such collections is a highly contentious issue as removing ‘dirt’ from objects removes important information about its use within physical, cultural, historical and spiritual contexts.
When objects have deteriorated, are broken or have areas of loss, it requires decision-making on behalf of the conservator and the owners of the cultural material. A conservator’s role in this instance is to stabilise and reduce physical or chemical damage rather than ‘restore’ the object to its original condition.
In regards to objects that may be deformed or warped, conservators often use treatments of humidification. Light application of deionized water using ultrasonic technology to humidify can return the natural shape of organic materials, such as plant fibres in basketry.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is another important component of preventive conservation. Managing and reducing the opportunity for pests to access a collection in the first place is significant, although freezing objects can kill biological activity such as insects and mould.
AICCM has a Special Interest Group for those interested in the conservation of objects, including Indigenous cultural material. Join this group, contribute to its activities, or speak to a specialist conservator.
Need a conservator? Find one here.
- The conservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Museum Victoria)
- Aboriginal Australia: Vatican and Italian connections (ReCollections)
- Heritage preservation: Museum conservation and First Nations perspectives (Miriam Clavir)