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Monday, May 16 • 2:30pm - 3:00pm
(General Session: Confronting the Unexpected) Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis

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In 2015, after the hate crime that left nine African Americans dead in Charleston, South Carolina, and following a series of police killings of unarmed African Americans, several monuments depicting Confederate leaders were spray-painted with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Media outlets circulated photographs of black and red writing scrawled over white stone monuments, and then captured images of these words being removed, sometimes leaving ghosts of the phrases behind. As the meaning of enacting rage against symbols of a problematic past was widely debated in the media, the conservation profession remained publically silent. Discussions on AIC’s email lists evidenced a concern for effacing paint rather than pausing to consider why this particular cultural heritage had been targeted, or wondering what it might mean to leave the words in place and engage in a community dialogue about how to interpret and manage monuments of complicated and hurtful histories. Since the professionalization of the conservation field in the twentieth century, we have grown more proficient at understanding and caring for the physical aspects of our collections. But this emphasis on materials rather than materiality—how objects and their materials create meaning and value—has led the conservation profession away from its core function. This paper asserts that the core of our work is to care for the histories, memories and stories embedded in objects. This “intangible” heritage is as essential to preserve as “tangible” heritage. Our work should be to preserve the possibility that objects’ multiple values can continue to be accessed and used by the people for whom this heritage has meaning. Contemporary conservation falls short of this essential function, a failure stemming from the profession’s lack of diversity, detachment from ongoing social and political dialogues, and limited engagement with the diverse communities whose heritage we are entrusted to preserve. The 2015 “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey” by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums brought the lack of diversity in the museum field into sharp focus. As cultural institutions struggle to remain relevant and reach out to broader audiences, the conservation profession seems to be in a phase of retrenchment, more carefully policing our professional qualifications rather than looking outward and asking, whose voices are we missing in the conservation process? Without including more diverse voices within the conservation field, and engaging with a wider group of stakeholders outside our field, we risk erasing histories and stories that are in our care. Conservators must move beyond the mere physical care of collections. The social and political crises of our contemporary world demand more than technical solutions; they require our dedicated engagement with the problems of our time. They require a commitment to growing more inclusive in how cultural heritage is preserved and by whom, and to be more attuned to the deeply emotional aspects of the collections we steward. Conservation in the twenty-first century can no longer just be about objects. Conservation has to be about people as well.

avatar for Sanchita Balachandran-[Fellow]

Sanchita Balachandran-[Fellow]

Associate Director, Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum
Sanchita Balachandran is Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. She teaches courses related to the technical study and analysis of ancient objects, as... Read More →

Monday May 16, 2016 2:30pm - 3:00pm EDT
Room 210 AB/EF