objects are artefacts which have been collected from indigenous
communities around the world. They are made from both organic materials
- those derived from plants and animals - and inorganic substances
like metals, glass and mineral pigments; organic and inorganic are
often found in combination. These might be local and traditional
materials, or may have been obtained through trade; they might well
include modern materials such as plastics.
found in ethnographic objects - such as smoke-tanned hide, sinew
or mica - may be unfamiliar to you as owner and collector. These
objects frequently have little associated documentation about how
they were made, used or collected so it is especially important
to ensure that any information contained within the object is preserved.
Objects may also incorporate human remains, such as teeth, bones
or hair, and this can raise ethical issues, as can the ritual or
sacred associations of an object.
- A conservator
specialising in ethnographic objects has developed skills in understanding
the often very complex material technology of these artefacts.
Conservators work with the objective of preserving as much evidence
of an object’s life history as possible – to allow
it to be understood and interpreted in the wider cultural context.
of damage – things to look out for
Ethnographic objects are susceptible to damage and deterioration
from environmental, physical, chemical and biological sources. The
combination of materials present in a single object can often accelerate
chemical deterioration, for example deteriorating glass beads on
leather, or corrosion products from metals on wood. Look out for:
- Metal corroding,
glass breaking down and fracturing or staining surfaces, embrittlement
of plant materials coloured with iron-rich muds or dyes. All these
indicate that conditions are too damp.
- Pest damage
from rodents, insects (e.g. carpet beetle larvae ‘woolly
bears’, clothes moth, silver fish, wood-boring insects)
or moulds and bacteria. These can cause both structural and surface
damage as well as staining, and are also encouraged by high relative
- Splits in
wood and plant materials, and stiffening or warping of previously
flexible materials such as hide, skin, textile, feathers or plant-based
substances. If humidity levels are allowed to fluctuate, this
can lead to materials becoming embrittled and fragmentary.
surfaces or coatings deteriorating, flaking or softening; layered
structures such as barkcloth may delaminate.
damage due to lack of appropriate mounts or physical support.
You may be tempted to “clean” a dirty-looking ethnographic
object, as you would a domestic artefact. Ask yourself first –
what exactly is it that will be removed in the cleaning process?
It is important to distinguish between the different types of soiling
present on an object; some deposits may be from the original setting,
or may derive from the original use of the object: for example smoke,
food residues or ritually-applied substances. This “dirt”
is actually unique and irreplaceable information about your object’s
history. There may well be more recent soiling accumulated since
the object was collected which can be safely removed - but can you
really distinguish these two?
- An ethnographic
conservator is trained to differentiate the different kinds of
accretion. He or she can advise you on what cleaning is possible
and how best to preserve all the information in your object or
can you do to prolong the life or your object or collection?
Improve the environment
- These objects
need to be stored and displayed where they are protected from
extremes of heat, cold, dampness and dryness and from high light
levels. Keep them where they are not subjected to fluctuations
of humidity and temperature.
- Ultra violet
radiation (from daylight) is particularly damaging, causing discolouration
and embrittlement of many materials. The effect is cumulative,
so keep exposure low.
- As ethnographic
objects are often made from a combination of materials, they require
a stable humidity and temperature environment. Daily changes in
conditions such as those produced by domestic central heating
are the most damaging to these materials – it is better
to keep objects in areas with constant low-level heating or no
heating at all.
should be kept away from external walls, and away from direct
sources of heat and light.
- You can document
the object using photographs, descriptions and diagrams to provide
a record and keep track of its condition and changes over time.
Where possible this should include the known history of the artefact.
The record will be important to a conservator devising a treatment
plan and it is also useful for insurance purposes.
- A conservator
will be able to advise on the cultural context of the object
and will provide thorough documentation about its condition
and any treatment undertaken.
and storage methods and materials
- Each object
should have adequate physical support, while stored or displayed,
to ensure it is not at risk of falling or being knocked over,
or of being damaged under its own weight, for example by becoming
- Use storage
and display materials that are chemically stable and do not emit
acidic or organic vapours. Good materials to use are acid-free
tissue and boxes, inert polyethylene foam and scoured cotton textiles.
possible, each object should be protected from dust using an acid-free
box or a dust cover (e.g. of ‘Tyvek’ or unbleached,
scoured calico) that will not abrade or damage the surface.
- Good physical
support is important when handling the object. Objects should
be handled minimally and carefully. Assess areas of possible weakness
before lifting and avoid lifting protruding parts such as handles,
supporting the weight fully from underneath. Ideally, wear vinyl
or latex gloves to ensure that nothing catches the surface. Trays
or boxes should be used where appropriate to move objects.
- You can
ask a conservator to make a mount for an unstable object from
appropriate materials; this will provide proper physical support.
Consulting a conservator
A conservator trained and specialised in the conservation of ethnographic
material will demonstrate an understanding of the factors that have
contributed to the current condition of your object or collection,
such as materials, manufacturing techniques, former use, alterations,
past environments, earlier repairs or treatments as well as storage
and display conditions. They can:
- Provide advice on how to best care for your object
- Give you an assessment of the condition it is in and whether
further conservation is necessary
- Assess the extent of conservation required and achieve the
best compromise possible between the conflicting preservation
requirements of the different component materials.
treatments that the conservator might undertake include:
- Cleaning to reduce surface and ingrained soiling deposited after
- Stabilisation of active deterioration such as insect, mould
or bacteria infestations, corrosion, chemical deterioration e.g.
of dark-coloured plant materials, flaking paint or coatings.
- Reshape distortions, reduce creasing and carry out structural
repairs to breaks, splits and areas of loss.
1992. Preserving Ethnographic Objects. In: K. Bachmann, ed. Conservation
Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Washington and London:
Smithsonian Institution Press.
Doyal,S., Murray, C. and Shelley, L., 2011. World cultures
collections. In: The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping - the
care of collections in historic houses open to the public. Elsevier,
Use the Conservation Register to Find
the Institute of Conservation 2006.
offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for
the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views
expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Institute of Conservation.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge use of the MGC publication 'Ours for Keeps' in the preparation of this text. The Institute
of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss
or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal
Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this
guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission
for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.