The Qero Project: Conservation and science collaboration over time

Emily Kaplan, Ellen Howe, Ellen Pearlstein, and Judith Levinson

Abstract

Since 1995, conservators from the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian have been carrying out a technical study of wood Andean ritual drinking vessels called qeros. Made and used in pairs, qeros have been produced in the Andes for millennia and provide an important link between the Andean past and present, they are still used today in traditional communities. This study focuses on qeros from the Inca and colonial periods decorated with a complex polychrome technique featuring abstract and pictorial designs and rich narrative scenes. Several chronologies based on style and iconography have been proposed, but prior to this project little work had been undertaken to identify the materials of manufacture and none had attempted to relate the results to chronology. This study aims to reconstruct context through an examination of persistence and change in materials, sources and technology. Collaboration between the project conservators and conservation scientists began with instrumental analysis of more than 300 samples at two museum labs, and now includes five conservation scientists at several facilities using numerous analytical methods. This paper discusses the results of the study and the collaborative process of a sixteen year-long project involving multiple institutions, conservators, scientists and analytical techniques.