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Preservation Technology: A Conversation with Heidi Swierenga

Recently MOA’s Senior Conservator, Heidi Swierenga was a guest on Preservation Technology, a podcast series that explores the progressive applications of science and technology in today’s world of museum conservation. The podcast is produced at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a research arm of the US National Park Service. Heidi spoke with Dr. Catherine Cooper, research scientist for the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. The following is an excerpt of their interview. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

MOA Collections Coordinator Cait Pilon assists students from the Freda Diesling School of Northwest Coast Art and instructor Ken McNeil as they study various belongings they selected from MOA’s collection. Photo by Bill Mclennan.

C. Cooper: What is the Collections Access Program at MOA, and why is it so important for MOA’s collections, in particular?

H. Swierenga: The Museum of Anthropology is a medium-size institution, by Canadian standards, with almost 50,000 pieces in the collection from around the world. The Collections Access Program helps to connect original makers,  owners or community members to their belongings now at MOA by reducing the barriers to access. The program provides funding for individuals or groups to travel to MOA or to have collections brought to their communities for research or loaned for use.

Different types of groups will come to MOA to spend time with their families’ or communities’ belongings and treasures, including individual artists, elders groups, and school groups. A group of weavers, for example, might select a collection of baskets that they would like to see close up, so we will bring these pieces from storage or out of the display cases to one of our research rooms. The weavers will then have time to work with them, hands on. The other aspect of the program is when we bring collections to communities; this might be a loan for use in a potlatch ceremony, where a family’s regalia would be danced or presented as part of the business that goes on in the potlatch; or it could be for display, replication or research purposes.

C. Cooper: How did this program develop? Have you noticed it change as a part of the Truth and Reconciliation process that Canada has recently gone through?

H. Swierenga: It actually started in the early 1980s when MOA was asked for the first time to loan an older piece for use in a potlatch. MOA had to rethink what it understood as the basic rules of preservation, and this started the decades long conversation about the needed balance between preservation and use, which conservators are now very familiar with. That first loan turned into the next loan, and the next loan… Now it is something that is considered part of standard practice for us.

One of the prompts that came out of the Calls to Action in the Truth and Reconciliation process was to consider how we, as an institution, have met the directives of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. It forced us to identify what have we implemented in terms of policies and initiatives that address a primary directive: that Indigenous people have the right to determine what’s going to happen with their cultural belongings, and the right to control the information about those cultural belongings.

In terms of the collections, we have been doing what we thought was a pretty good job of working with Indigenous communities in trying to address the impacts of colonialization, but we were being passive about it. Yes, we were approving loans. Yes, we were facilitating these requests. But we were still doing it in a way that was convenient for the institution. Since the Calls to Action, we have taken a more proactive stance, and we recognize our responsibility to promote awareness about access and to bring funding to the table to help offset the costs associated with access.

C. Cooper: How does the Collections Access Program and particularly the loan of objects balance the conservation ethics of preservation and use?

H. Swierenga: Maybe I can come at it from how we deal with the requests. When there is a request to borrow something for use, a group of people will be involved in deciding if it is possible: the individual who has made the request, the person who will be dancing that piece, and the conservator and curator from the Museum. Together, we’ll work out whether or not the piece is strong enough to be danced, or if modifications need to be made. When I was working on a family’s request with the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist and hereditary chief Beau Dick, I modified a headdress for use only after Beau was satisfied that it was safe enough to be danced. The headdress is carved out of thin hemlock wood and is cracked in several places. When we first looked at it together, Beau thought it was going to move around too much during dancing, and was worried that it would deteriorate further. But I was able to easily do a solid repair using tinted Japanese tissue paper and wheat-starch paste. Beau then recreated a horn and a wing that were missing from the headdress, because he felt that dancing the headdress without them would be disrespectful to both to the headdress and the family.

Heidi Swierenga consults with Kwakwaka’waka hereditary chief, Beau Dick, about a thunderbird headdress. Photo by Karen Duffek.

So, it was a perfect balance, in my mind, because we brought the headdress to a state where we were confident that it could be safely danced, yet  we had to make changes to get there. It’s not just preserved in its original form, it’s now different: it’s showing the process that it went through and that it was danced again. It was able to still do the job that it was originally created to do, which was to show a certain privilege that the family wanted guests to witness at that potlatch.

C. Cooper: How has your work as a conservator changed as these programs and initiatives have developed?

H. Swierenga: I would say that my personal process has changed quite a bit. A memo that I recently found from 20 years ago when I first started at MOA attests to this. It was my response to a request to borrow a headdress for use at a potlatch. My response then was, no, it couldn’t be used because it was too fragile. Now, I would say, “I’m not sure. Let’s look at it together and decide.” I read that memo and thought, “I’m going to have to burn this. Nobody can know what I said.” But I did show it to a colleague, who said, “No, this is great, this shows how much we’ve changed, this shows how much our practice has evolved.”

For me, really, it shows how much I have learned from the different artists, dancers, and community members who I’ve worked with, who have taught me how to go about doing this properly. I am grateful for all of those lessons, and for the stories that I’m able to share with students to challenge them to think in different ways.