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Contributors: Dana Moffett
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Copyright: 2011. The Objects Group Wiki pages are a publication of the Objects Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The Objects Group Wiki pages are published for the members of the Objects Specialty Group. Publication does not endorse or recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein.
What are Ethnographic Objects
The description ethnographic refers to material culture that is frequently utilitarian in nature and for which anthropological context is important. The cultural groups producing these objects may have been historically documented or they may still be functioning as a society in the present. Because the written record on these cultures is often sparse or non-existent, objects become a primary source of information on the society. Consequently, ethnographic objects are collected for the information they may hold about the people who made them as well as for their aesthetic qualities.
How an artifact is made, used, and perceived indigenously (i.e., within its own culture) will significantly influence the conservator's approach to treatment. The materials from which ethnographic objects are manufactured can be either familiar or unusual, and in many instances they may be impossible to identify. Often these objects are composites and may present inherent vice. For example, oily leather dressing causes corrosion on brass metal hardware. Incompatible combinations of materials may complicate recommendations for display or storage or treatment choice. The technology of construction also influences the stability of the artifact.
Much of the importance of traditional ethnographic material resides in the context in which it was created: how the objects have been used and valued within the originating society. Preservation of evidence of use is a priority. Wear might be the most obvious form of use; areas of the object may be worn down, smoothed, or even rubbed away by indigenous handling. Indigenous repairs are considered part of the history of the piece and contribute to the object's value. Patination--color, sheen, encrusted applications, oils--indicates that an object has been well used in its cultural setting. Further, any treatment an object may have received after being removed from its cultural setting is sometimes considered valuable evidence of its history and provenance.
In their cultural context, objects may have been purely functional items, or they may have been more socially important, imparting prestige, providing control, or invoking spiritual responses. In recent years, the cultural perceptions of an artifact have become influential when considering possible conservation treatments and the general handling of ethnographic material. For example, material produced by the indigenous people of the Americas is often considered sacred culturally; consequently, these objects may have special requirements for storage, exhibition, and treatment. An ethnographic conservator should provide treatment that is culturally sensitive.
Moffett, D., S. Hornbeck, and S. Mellor. 2001. Ethnographic objects. In Conservation resources for art and antiques. Washington Conservation Guild. 62-66.
Rose, C. 1992. Ethnographic materials. In Caring for your collections: Preserving and protecting your art and other collections, ed. H. Whelchel. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 138-22.
Rose, C. 1992. Preserving ethnographic objects. In Conservation concerns: A guide for collectors and curators, ed. K. Bachman. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 115-22.
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