Divergent Conservations – conservations divergentes

Some reflections on the conference “Conservations divergentes – Préservation et transmission des collections de provenance coloniale en débat” (Divergent Conservations – Debates on the preservation and transmission of collections of colonial provenance), co-organized by Lotte Arndt (Technische Universität Berlin) and Noémie Étienne (Bern University) at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA) in Paris in December 2022.

On December 12, 2022 I attended the conference “Conservations divergentes – Préservation et transmission des collections de provenance coloniale en débat” that took place at the INHA in Paris.

This international event aimed to examine the ways in which collections of colonial origin question and transform the practices and concepts of conservation, opening up to multiple, and even divergent approaches. It brought together scholars, artists and museum professionals from Canada, France, Germany, Aotearoa New Zealand, Rwanda, Senegal, and Switzerland.

The event opened with the online performative lecture by artist, poet and scholar Rosanna Raymond,[1] entitled Glass Walls and Dark Seas, where she presented several of her previous performance works, in which she engages with conservation and museum collections. Over the last twenty years, Raymond has had countless entanglements with Pacific heritage collections – either as artist in residence, community liaison and/or researcher. Her practice also revolves around naked bodies, clothing and fashion and their role in (Indigenous) identity building (notably with her collective Pacific Sisters).

In her work and writing she brings forward the Samoan concept of vā (relational space) to propose different tools for current museum practices, especially conservation, in what she calls conser.VĀ.tion and activ.VA.tion. She explores how the performative body of the Moana artist can engage with museum collections “to keep warm and nurture the connections between communities and museum measina (treasure).”[2] This brilliant set of practices could help further our thinking about performance’s potential not only to be conserved, but simultaneously as a means of preservation and care in itself, through (re)activating embodied practices and creating new, meaningful forms of knowledge.

Rosanna Raymond’s lecture Glass Walls and Dark Seas (on Zoom), December 12, 2022. Photo Emilie Magnin.

Besides a moving keynote lecture about museums as spaces for reconciliation by John Moses (director for repatriation and Indigenous relations at the Canadian Museum of History), the conference favored roundtable and panel discussions, bringing together various perspectives on topics such as “Transformation of conservation practices in museums” or “Challenging objectification.”

During the first panel, Isabel Garcia, who works as head conservator at the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva, introduced an interesting term to the discussion: Because “conservation” holds many colonial-inherited connotations, it fixes the object into a state of violence (the moment it entered the collection). Therefore, she prefers to talk about the “bientraitance” of collections. The French nuance is perhaps difficult to translate, but bientraitance reads as the opposite of maltraitance, meaning abuse or mistreatment – and interestingly a word that didn’t previously exist in French, and only recently emerged around discourses of care.

The second panel, “Challenging objectification – towards living practices,” brought up the importance of understanding museum objects as part of living cultures and communities, with their own values and systems of care. Too often, conservation is still very much understood as a practice revolving primarily around objects and caring for objects. Sustaining objects is not enough, their cultural connections must also be sustained, nurtured and oftentimes even restored. While this perspective is widely shared by cultural heritage specialists and conservators, its practical implementation still comes with difficulties. This state of things can be explicated by the traditional model of collecting as accumulating objects: Chantal Umuhoza (Curator, Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy) explained how her institution in Rwanda “inherited” a collection of objects, for which all immaterial aspects were lost because not collected or documented at the time. Especially missing were all aspects pertaining to how these objects were intended to be activated and cared for. This type of traditional knowledge, she notes, is still not part of conservation training in Rwanda.

“Conservations divergentes – Préservation et transmission des collections de provenance coloniale en débat,” co-organized by Noémie Etienne and Lotte Arndt, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris, December 12, 2022.

From these discussions also emerged the problematic of museums very often externalizing the critical work to artists engaging with collections, instead of tackling the decolonization issue on a broader and more permanent scale. Similarly, the “experimental” work of expanded conservation treatment is regularly delegated to external Indigenous experts, but the museums only rarely make the effort to hire permanent staff of Indigenous descent – let alone to create Indigenous-led institutions, as John Moses suggested in his keynote lecture. On a bright note, the situation is slowly changing, thanks to the hard work of many individuals such as Brandie Macdonald, with whom we recently had the pleasure of meeting.

This conference raised important topics and demonstrated a real questioning of the conservation profession and its colonial entanglements of collecting and disconnecting objects from their cultures of origin. But to do so, I believe that the scholarship of contemporary art conservation also has a lot to contribute. In the last decades – parallel to ethnographic conservation’s acknowledgement of Indigenous systems of care – contemporary art conservators, dealing with changing, ephemeral and generally unruly objects, also developed strategies that include the building and sustaining of communities of care, embodied knowledge and oral transmission, and sometimes reconstructions from loss and fragments.

Of course, it can seem perilous to relate the specific and emotionally loaded context of ethnographic objects that were acquired in a violent manner to the contemporary art scene. Yet, as Noémie Etienne mentioned in her introduction speech, colonial mechanisms can also be found in unequal power relationships within one society (between rich and poor, or between urban and rural areas for instance).

Traditional (Western) systems of care, community building and solidarity that have been excluded from scientifically-oriented conservation technologies might also come to the fore when it comes to caring for art forms that traditional museum collections excluded for so long – such as performance art. One can recognize similarities in those cultures of care that developed in traditional Indigenous systems of care, and those that flourished around performance art – an art form that first suffered from institutional neglect as an embodied, and often female practice – in form of communities of artists and artist-led archives for instance.

In conclusion, rethinking and expanding conservation to repair the harm of the imperial past should not be the burden of ethnographic conservators and Indigenous communities only, but the aim of the entire conservation community. Here it might be useful also to think with performance (both as part of the landscape of contemporary art and as a form of sustaining living heritage) to redefine what is our object of conservation and to expand what we understand as conservation care beyond the traditional institutional frame.

[1] We will have the pleasure to welcome Rosanna Raymond for our upcoming third colloquium, “Performance Conservation: Artists Speak,” that will take place in Bern on May 16, 2023. See the full program here.

[2] Rosanna Raymond, “C o n s e r . VĀ. t i o n | A c t i . VĀ. t i o n Museums, the Body and Indigenous Moana Art Practice” (Master of Philosophy, Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, 2021).

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