“A definite responsibility to shoulder”: The preservation of historical objects at the Bahá’í World Centre

Victor Sobhani and Sonjél Vreeland

Abstract

The unique and extensive collection of historical objects, artifacts and decorative items at the Bahá’í World Centre has profound meaning and value for followers of the Bahá’í Faith. As tangible expressions of the body of doctrine and system of values and beliefs that form the religion, these items are integral to the strong cultural tradition of Bahá’í pilgrimage. Bahá’í conservators who treat these items must balance reversibility, honoring historic integrity, the artist’s intent, a scientific understanding of the object’s make and materials with beauty, aesthetics, reverence and piety.

The Bahá’í Faith is the youngest of the world’s independent religions. Its founders, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) and the Báb (1819-1850), are regarded by Bahá’ís as the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. A large collection of historical objects of various materials, ranging from original sacred manuscripts and texts to household items and personal effects of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, members of their families and other historical figures is currently housed at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel. The importance of collecting, documenting and conserving these items, particularly the written works, has been delineated by Bahá’u’lláh himself, and has been reiterated by his successors, as a specific responsibility for His followers. Furthermore, the first exhibitions of these objects were arranged by Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and appointed interpreter of His writings. In addition, the Bahá’í World Centre’s first administrative building to be erected was the International Archives Building, an exhibit hall designed and constructed under Shoghi Effendi’s guidance. He stated: “now […] is the time for the friends to exert their utmost in order to preserve as much as they can of the sacred relics and various other precious objects that are associated with the lives of the Founders of the Faith” (Effendi 1973, 4). This prescribed emphasis on preservation for posterity necessitates an awareness among Bahá’í conservators of the latest preservation developments and techniques for both professional and religious reasons and engenders a reverent approach to their work.

This essay, which formed the basis of a presentation at the 2011 annual conference for the American Institute of Conservation, seeks to define the scope of the collection at the Bahá’í World Centre and describe its curatorial aesthetics; to highlight the directives for conservation as stipulated by the religion’s sacred writings and its authoritative interpretations; to provide a material culture study; and to briefly discuss the conservation treatment of one item from among the collection: a Rodgers & Sons pocketknife belonging to the Báb.

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