Preservation with finite resources: Conservation and rehousing of Pacific Island and African Material Culture Collections

T. Rose Holdcraft

Abstract

This paper, within a session that addresses decision-making processes for implementation of complex conservation projects, will discuss similarities and unique preservation challenges of two separate projects that involve Pacific Islands tapa/barkcloth and Central and West African ivory and wood items held in the Peabody Museum.

University anthropological museums and other museums that hold extensive collections that are primarily utilized for research and teaching, grapple with continuing issues of appropriate access and preservation. A museum preservation program requires ongoing planned collaboration and flexibility to meet the changing field of museum priorities (loans, inhouse exhibitions, research, teaching, and publication). The additional concern for museums with anthropological holdings whose collections are not all accessioned, catalogued or numbered, includes the federal obligations under NAGPRA. The Peabody Museum, with more than half of its large material culture collections from North America, nearly doubled its staff size for the NAGPRA inventory two years ago. The museum’s long-range preservation/conservation plan provides a structure to address priority or immediate concerns resulting from the inventory process or other museum activities, as well as long-term goals. The museum has been meeting its critical preservation needs for several years through specific collection-based conservation projects with additional funding support from private foundations and federal agencies.

The recent and evolving museum-wide systems management approach to documentation of the museum’s extensive archival and material culture collections both impacts and integrates conservation activity and enhances inter-departmental coordination. Museum-wide collaboratively designed conservation projects improve ongoing staff communication, collection care training and preservation awareness.

Organizing challenges (inventory; backlog cataloguing; digital imaging) appear to define a staff base for future support of preservation and research initiatives. Selected material types from the Pacific Islands and African holdings, previously identified as in need of conservation (either due to poor storage and limited research access or due to easy retrieval and subsequent material alterations) have been or are currently being documented, conserved and rehoused. This paper will outline project conception and timing, objectives, relevant planning for personnel, physical space, material resources, and conservation treatment and rehousing solutions. The presentation will discuss how project goals were met and how project results influence and shape future conservation programming.