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Continuing the Life of Objects: MOA’s Past + Present Conservators in Dialogue

The Museum of Anthropology’s conservators know firsthand that the process of caring for museum objects has ethical, political and emotional dimensions. As MOA’s first conservator, serving from 1980 to 2004, Dr. Miriam Clavir developed the Museum’s framework for maintaining both the physical properties and intangible heritage of objects. Her award-winning book, Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation, and First Nations, explores this topic through extensive interviews and personal experience.

Heidi Swierenga is currently the Senior Conservator at MOA. Since starting here in 2000, she has continued and expanded on Miriam’s work. Whether accompanying regalia from the collection to be used in potlatches, or teaching conservation students at UBC, she has further advocated for the loan and cultural use of museum collections.

In this interview, Miriam and Heidi speak about the evolving roles, relationships and responsibilities of museum conservators.

(L-R) Tillie Jones, Christine Rivers, MOA Curator Sue Rowley, Debra Sparrow, MOA Senior Conservator Heidi Swierenga and Faye Oakes in a community research visit with a Salish weaving on loan from the National Museum of Finland. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

MOA: Heidi, how has your practice responded to the contemporary discourses around conservation in the time that you’ve been at MOA?

Heidi Swierenga: Conservation at MOA has always pushed the boundaries of preservation and use as prescribed by our code of ethics. There needs to be a balance between preserving an object for future generations and acknowledging that originating communities may have a need to use that same object. Conservators traditionally advocated for the object, but we now tend to give more weight to the needs of communities. We do this by assessing the risks associated with using an object, and reevaluating what might be considered “valued change” as opposed to “damage.”

A big shift I’ve seen is the growing awareness that requests to access and use belongings are possible, and that belongings can travel to communities of origin. Every year we increase resources to support these requests. When I started, there was one request every few years, and now we do three to four a year.

MOA: Are there any ongoing relationships that you’ve created through requests?

Heidi: Yes, many. For example, we have a weaving in the collections by the Tsimshian weaver William White (MOA Collection: 2641/1). William borrows the robe almost yearly for different events. It was last used in a potlatch in Alert Bay in 2018. It was danced many times by different people over the two- day event. It was wonderful to see. Each time that the robe is used it changes a little—these changes are expected by the Museum, and in fact, valued as important markers in the weaving’s ongoing life.

MOA: Miriam, in your book, you lay out some best practices to navigate the relationship between preserving intangible heritage and tangible objects. Was there anything when conducting research for your book that made things click for you?

Miriam Clavir: There wasn’t any one thing. I kept having my eyes opened by the answers Indigenous people gave to my questions about preservation and conservation. Take a look at Chapter 3 of my book. It was the same with the chapter on New Zealand. I was lucky to be able to go there and talk to five conservators of Maori heritage. It was both mind-opening and eye-opening to begin to understand relationships to objects from a personal point of view; not just from an intellectual point of view, but an emotional one.

Tsimshian weaver William White makes alterations to the robe that he wove (MOA Collection: 2641/1) in preparation for a potlatch. Photo by Hayley Munroe.

MOA: Are there any misconceptions about museum objects or conservation that you would like MOA’s visitors to be aware of?

Miriam: Many people still think “black box conservation” is the best. That’s the idea that the utmost preservation is the ideal, as if you’re putting an object in a box where there’s no light, no heat, nothing to deteriorate it. Conservators do as much as they can following these guidelines, but what we call objects are also cultural belongings. For conservators to respect this means, to give two examples, that we agree to loan out pieces housed in a museum for use by those who have the cultural rights to them, or allow the pieces to be used ceremonially at the museum.

Heidi: These misconceptions further fuel our mandate to support community loans. It is incorrect to assume that an object in a museum no longer has relevance to the family or community that it came from. Belongings still have powerful roles to play, and we’re obligated to do what we can to enable their use.

MOA: Moving forward, what ethical issues are at the forefront for conservators and for museums at large?

Heidi: Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action (2015), there are more conversations happening, at least in Canada, about practice and ethics in institutions around the display, interpretation and care of Indigenous belongings. That’s a great conversation to have, and I’m glad that conservation is a part of that.

MOA just started a new Collections Access Grant this year that is designed to reduce financial barriers and provide greater access for community members to visit and study belongings in the Museum’s collection. The grant is open to Indigenous individuals or groups, for up to $3,000. Community members can apply online. There are three application deadlines per year—the next one is coming up on January 31, 2020.