Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian -- Carambelas

Pipebag, c.1890
Hide, glass beads, porcupine quills, sinew.
Oglala Lakota: South Dakota.
78 cm x 19 cm x 2 cm
Collection of the NMAI (14.2585)
As noted by former Secretary of the Smithsonian, Robert McCormick Adams, museums have moved "decisively from the older image of the museum as a temple with its superior, self-governing priesthood to... a forum... committed not to the promulgation of received wisdom but to the encouragement of a multi-cultural dialogue." For my paper I decided to look at how the role of the conservator and conservation efforts have been affected by this change through examining three case studies from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). These case studies included the loan of 24 Navajo blankets for exhibition and educational use, the loan of Siletz Nay Dosh (Feather Dance) regalia for ceremonial use, and the collaborative treatment of two Lakota bags for display. I also examined the case of repatriation of human remains as an example where cultural context completely overrides scientific endeavors (here science is taken to be DNA analysis rather than conservation).
While the museum's collections are legally owned by the citizens of the United States, they are taken to be culturally owned by the source communities and their decedents. Therefore, the museum holds itself to be the steward, not owner, of the objects it houses. Authority over the collection, including decisions about conservation treatments, is shared and worked out through collaborative efforts which often privilege cultural context. This has resulted in a fundamental shift in conservation theory from there being one right way to conserve an object towards the idea that the function or cultural value of the object is to be preserved.
The case studies highlight the importance of collaboration, knowledge sharing, respect, and, to a degree, willingness on the part of the conservator to give up control. Such collaborations means a broadening of methods, processes, and concepts of value. However, it cannot be assumed that there is a dichotomy between cultural preservation and object preservation. Because the objects are sources of information for Native communities and even embody their cultural beliefs, the two processes must work together for there to be success on both sides.
Video: Interview with Marian Kaminitz, Head of Conservation at NMAI.
Video: Interview with Jessica Johnson, Senior Object Conservator at NMAI.
Video: Talk by Marian Kaminitz.

Parfleche Bag, c.1875
Rawhide, paint, wool cloth, cotton, sinew.
Hunkpapa Lakota: North Dakota.
24 cm x 20 cm x 11 cm
Collection of the NMAI (23.3065)
(After and Before treatments: Sorry for the reversal or order!)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Indian Peace Medals: Issues with Ownership and Repatriation--Spiegel

My final paper looked at the issues surrounding ownership and repatriation of Indian peace medals in the United States. These medals were used by the United States as a major part of Indian diplomacy from 1789 until the early 1890s. Many were highly valued by their recipients, and some Indians were buried with their medals, while others were passed down through their family.

Red Jacket with 1792 George Washington Indian Peace Medal. Printed by McKenney and Hall. 1834. The peace medal is now in the collection of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.

I looked at three different case studies of how Indian peace medals have been repatriated. The first, a Jefferson peace medal found in an Indian burial in Washington in 1964, was repatriated in 2006 and subsequently reburied.

The second, which also involves a Jefferson peace medal, has a more disputed provenance, but it too is believed to have been found in a grave site. Currently in the possession of the Oregon Historical Society, it will soon be repatriated and there is debate about the proper place to put the medal ( reburial or display?).

1801 Jefferson Indian Peace Medal. Oregon Historical Society. Small Size (55 mm).

The final case study looked at a medal from the Minnesota Historical Society that was repatriated about a decade ago, but has been left on display at the society. It is notable that this medal was not found in a burial site and was actually donated by the family of a tribal chief. This example shows how the tribe and the museum reached to an agreement that serves both sides.

Indian peace medals represent the shared cultural heritage of the United States and Native Americans. Although a few medals fall under the NAGPRA (1990) law and are required to be repatriated, most do not, yet they are still an important part of Native American history and culture. Because peace medals were made by the United States but given to Indians, they are a significant part of the collective identity of America. As I wrote in my paper, “Institutions, collectors, and Indians should recognize the unique nature of peace medals and work together to determine what options best preserve the purpose and significance of these medals.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Philosophical Analysis of Intent: Defining its Importance in Conservation -- Martinek

My paper explores the philosophical debate between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism, and the how this debate changes the way conservation of modern and contemporary art is approached.

In the 1990’s, it was proposed that an artist’s intent is only important in the creation of an artwork, and cannot be applied to that work once it is finished. This anti-intentionalist argument was quickly challenged by intentionalists, who insisted not only is the artist’s intent relevant but it should be closely examined for the true meaning behind the artwork.

This debate was significant in that it opened people’s eyes to the issues of understanding art and the criteria we use to define it. This criteria, of course, is crucial for conservators because without it they have no direction from which to work. We have learned this year that the intent of the artist is one of the most crucial components to conservation, and have seen many examples where a conservator researched the artist in-depth or even worked with them first-hand to conserve a piece. But is this always necessary?

After reading Andrew Thorn’s article on indigenous sites in Australia and seeing how conservators were able to effectively conserve the site without understanding the intent of the artist, I was curious to find out what they had needed to know in order to preserve the integrity of the site, and whether these criteria could also be applied to contemporary art.

Looking at two case studies (Damien Hirst and Petah Coyne), I was able to conclude that it wasn’t the intent of the artist that was crucial to conservation, but rather the intent of the art itself (defined as “artistic intent”) and the role of the artist to protect that intent. The debate between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism allowed me to define intent in a way that made the subtle differences between these intentions and roles clear;

Damien Hirst is an example of an artist who appears to have no real intent with the creation of his pieces. Intent, however, can be defined from a biographical standpoint or from the importance of materials. It has been suggested that Hirst
only uses his art for fame or money, and while this could be the motivation that drives him we also see an emphasis on expression through certain mediums and the mastery of manipulating those materials. These are Hirst’s intentions, and while they may be important to the creation of his art they are not what his audience is supposed to focus on. Hirst’s artwork takes on its own intent, and viewers are left to understand his work in their own way. As seen from his conservation of
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, Hirst takes on an advisory capacity for the rehabilitation of the artwork, replacing the tools but still leaving the audience to determine the deeper implications of the shark for themselves.

On the opposite end of the contemporary art spectrum is Petah Coyne, whose strict tendency to drastically change her pieces suggests a very specific intent for the message of her pieces. This need to ma
nipulate her pieces, however, does not stem from her intent as an artist, but – like Hirst – rather as the handyman who ensures the artwork has the proper tools to convey its own message. Like Hirst, Coyne’s intent lies in the manipulation of materials. She has said herself that often she has no idea what she’s trying to convey in a piece even after it’s finished, so it is clear that the viewer is left to their own devices when it comes to understanding the specific artistic intent of the piece. The general direction that this artistic intent takes is the dialogue between the artwork and its surroundings and how people understand that dialogue for themselves. When the location changes, the message loses a key component to its transmission, and it is up to Coyne therefore to change the piece to fit its surroundings. This has nothing to do with her original intent, but rather the intent of the art and that of the viewer.

Conservation of Public and Street Art: Wall Paintings of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Keith Haring, Banksy

“The only way art lives is through the experience of the observer.” –Keith Haring

Public artworks are defined not only by their location and accessibility, but also by their function within the community. When an artist chooses or is commissioned to integrate a work into a public space, they engage directly with the neighborhood and promote a forum for discussion and criticism. The three artists I examined in my paper have made works that increase public awareness of contemporary social and political issues and consider the act of artistic creation equal in importance to the finished work: David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Mexican muralist; Keith Haring, an American artist inspired by graffiti culture; and the pseudonymous British graffiti artist known as Banksy.

With Siqueiros and Haring, I examined a specific case study documenting a conservation treatment of their work and evaluated the success of the treatment based on the conservators’ faithfulness to artistic intent. Using statements from these artists, I determined that they both valued the performative aspect of creating artwork and the participation of the viewer and community in creating meaning.

Siqueiros, David Alfaro. Black and white photo of América Tropical after its completion.

Photo: El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

Siqueiros, David Alfaro. América Tropical. The uncovered mural, 2002. Photo: Leslie Rainer.

La América Tropical (1932) is the single remaining public mural in the United States created by Siqueiros. For this mural, Siqueiros employed a modern fresco technique. Using cement and airbrushed paint application, his experimental method was intended to withstand the harsh weather of southern California, but the paint surface began to deteriorate within a few months after completion. The political and anti-American theme of this mural upset local civic authorities who had the mural whitewashed soon after the paint began to fade. According to writings by Siqueiros, he was pleased by the results of this mural despite the fact that it did not last. I feel that, though the aesthetic value of this mural is lost, the Getty conservators have preserved its significant historical and political value by removing the remaining whitewash and making the ideas behind the work accessible to the public once again. The conservation treatment is still in progress.

Haring, Keith. Drawing on Elevator, 1986. In the Art Academy Utrecht.

Conservation, before (at top) and in progress. Photo: Lydia Beerkens, 2005.

Keith Haring follows the thinking of Siqueiros stating, “From the beginning, one of my main incentives was this contact with people […] even if the drawing remained up for only one day, enough people saw it to make it worth my effort.” In 1986 he created an impromptu graffiti work in black spray paint on one of the elevators in the main hall at the Utrecht Art Academy. Soon after he made this work, a janitor (thinking it was student graffiti) managed to scrape away the head of the main figure before a staff member stopped his cleaning. The piece remained in this state until conservators from the Stedelijk Museum were approached in 2003. Though many of the art professors felt that this work was intended to be ephemeral and should not be restored, the board asked the conservators to proceed with the major intervention. The lost head was inpainted and the work was cleaned. Despite the fact that the authenticity of the object has been compromised, I think that this was a successful treatment because the act of conserving this public work (just like the performance of creating it) refreshed the work in the eyes of the community and got people talking.

Banksy, on the other hand, is a different animal than Haring and Siqueiros, but I used their case studies to inform my opinion of the amateur “preservation” attempts on his stencil graffiti published in popular media sources. These stencil graffiti pieces have become highly sought after on the art market and citizens are resorting to cutting them out of walls and buildings to sell at auction. While the commoditization of the artist’s works does not mesh with his espoused anti-consumerist stance, there are no published statements from the artist condemning the actions of these individuals. The conservator could simply regard the removal of his paintings as just another act of vandalism or even a critical judgment of Banksy’s art. Banksy, wearing the mask of his pseudonym, has entirely relinquished authority of his public artistic works to the populace. While “preservation” of Banksy’s works will save them for future generations, I think that that in order for a Banksy to retain its subversive value and authenticity, the work must be left unaltered and in its original context.

Top: Banksy, stencil of a rat.
Bottom: Gloucester Gardens wall, after the stencil and sign were removed for sale on eBay.

The Symbolic Meaning of Mosques in Iraq: Cultural Heritage Turned Political Identity – Ashton

Robert Bevan discusses in his book The Destruction of Memory, that “It is the ever-changing meanings brought to brick and stone, rather than some inbuilt quality of the materials or the way in which they are assembled, that need to be emphasized.” My paper examines the way in which mosques in Iraq have become highly places of highly political meanings due to attacks, raids, lootings and other destruction during the Iraq War and U.S. occupation of Iraq. I examine three particular mosques which each have run a different course throughout U.S. occupation in Iraq.

The Golden Mosque of Samarra, or the Askariya Shrine, is a 1000 year old mosque, famous for its beautiful architecture, as well as its historical importance to Islam. The mosque holds the tomb of the tenth and eleventh imams, and was the place of the disappearance of the twelfth imam, the “hidden imam,” who, according to Islamic faith, is still living and the time when he resurfaces will mark the beginning of the end of the world. In February 2006, the golden dome was destroyed in a bombing planted by Al Qaeda, strategically placed in this Shiite mosque (located in a mostly Sunni area) to start civil war in Iraq. The attack created chaos on the verge of civil war between the two Islamic groups, but now the rebuilding process has brought the neighborhood together, of which the mosque is now a symbol.

The Abu Hanifa Mosque, about 5 miles from Baghdad, was the stage for a U.S. raiding in November 2004, in which several civilians were killed while at prayer. The raid has caused great anti-American sentiment, and efforts to protect the mosque have made the mosque a symbol in the community for the anti-American feeling that has become widespread in Iraq, and throughout Iraq.

Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of All Battles” Mosque was built with many military allusions, and appears to be a shrine to himself and the victory of the Gulf War. The minarets of the mosque resemble rifles and scud missiles, several of which reach a height of 43 meters to represent the 43 days of conflict with the U.S. during the Gulf War. The mosque’s confused message of worship for the Islamic faith and Saddam may be represented in the 600 page Koran, written in Saddam’s blood, located in one of the minarets. After the fall of the regime, the mosque is subject to new interpretation, although it too has become a symbol for the American presence in Iraq and the turmoil of the times.

All share in common the way in which, though built as monuments of religion and cultural heritage, they have been transformed into political symbols due to the atrocities commit to them or around them during U.S. occupation.


Golden Mosque of Samarra (before destruction on left, after on right); http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/13/world/middleeast/13cnd-samarra.html

Abu Hanifa Mosque; http://www.iraqwho.com/Tourism_Center_Religious.asp

Saddam’s “Mother of All Battles” Mosque; http://www.ifapray.org/archive/NFOW/NFOW2003/Jan-June%202003/Saddam%27s%20Mosque%20of%20War%20-%20April%2013,%202003.html


"New Role for Mosques in Iraq," BBC News Article -- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2962083.stm

"Rebuilding Hope" Video about Golden Mosque of Samarra -- http://dalje.com/tv/en/index.php?id=10218s3e1fb92977350