The conservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage

Many museum, gallery, and library collections house and display Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage items. Conservators seek to achieve a balance between the use of the items and their preservation. These need not be in conflict. Access to collection items for research, study, viewing, and learning can continue if the objects are in a good state of preservation. Ultimately this is our conservation goal: to care for heritage collections in order to provide public and community access to them.

Conservation issues

In order to conserve Indigenous collections, both their cultural and physical aspects need to be considered. To appreciate an object’s significance, we need to understand the cultural context from which it comes, as well as its social, historical, intellectual, and aesthetic value. To understand and retard the physical processes of deterioration we look to the sciences, where materials testing and analysis have an important role in the development of conservation treatments for objects and the ongoing preservation of entire collections.

In the last two decades there has been much closer collaboration between Australian museums and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about the preservation and management of their cultural material held in museums. Management policies provide ethical and philosophical guidance for conservators in their approach to the preservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections.

Older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material culture is made from a wide variety of materials, including feathers, skin, plant fibre, and turtle shell. Such materials are naturally fragile, so they can be difficult to preserve. Although many contemporary objects are made from modern materials, special considerations are still needed to ensure their long-term preservation.

Conservator with basket

Conservator with basket
Source: Museum Victoria

Approaches to conservation of collections

In general, conservation approaches which are adopted for indigenous collections comprise:

  1. minimal intervention in the ‘hands-on’ treatment of individual objects (called ‘remedial’ or ‘interventive’ conservation); and
  2. use of environment and risk-focused measures in storage, display, and handling of collections (called ‘preventive conservation’).

When objects undergo remedial treatment, the conservator’s aim is to retard or stabilise physical damage and chemical/material-based deterioration, rather than to restore the object’s form or appearance to an earlier period (such as its original state when the object was created).

For example, original designs on historic Aboriginal bark paintings are not retouched in areas where paint has been lost, as painting on bark is seen to be solely the moral and cultural domain of the artist. Conservators seek the advice of indigenous staff and other research specialists in determining appropriate ways to treat, store and display indigenous collections. Cultural information about specific heritage objects is utilised and preserved in this process.

Preventive conservation generally means addressing the care of entire collections, rather than focusing on one individual object in a collection. Its principles help determine optimum conditions of long-term care for collections by ensuring storage and display environments are pest-free, have appropriate and stable levels of temperature, humidity and air quality, and staff are well trained in physical handling, storage and transport of objects.

Remedial conservation techniques and wise use of preventive conservation principles provide the best approach to the preservation of collections.

For advice on conservation issues, contact the Discovery Centre staff who regularly liaise with Museum Victoria’s Conservation Department.

The Discovery Centre
Melbourne Museum
Carlton Gardens
Open 10am to 4:30pm daily
61 3 8341 7111
discoverycentre@museum.vic.gov.au

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