Posted to the Ethnos Project by on August 26th, 2013

Symposium 2007: Preserving Aboriginal Heritage: Technical & Traditional Approaches (originally published by the Canadian Conservation Institute)

What We Heard


In September 2007, about 400 people gathered in Ottawa for Symposium 2007 – Preserving Aboriginal Heritage: Technical and Traditional Approaches.  Professional conservators and Elders, staff from cultural centres and museum managers, community leaders and students, curators and historians, and international experts from North and South America, Australia, Europe, and Africa came to share their expertise, experiences, stories, and commitment. About one-third of them were Indigenous peoples, mainly from Canada (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit).

The goal of the symposium was to provide an opportunity for Aboriginal people and conservation specialists to learn from one another — in an atmosphere of mutual respect — about traditional, technical, ethical, and intangible aspects of the conservation of Aboriginal material culture. The participants made good use of the opportunity. They shared their professional insights and their personal histories. They spoke and they sang. They stirred emotions, provided social and cultural context, and offered technical advice. They spoke of the land, of the people, and of the objects created by the people from materials found on the land — totem poles and rock art, tools and clothing, baskets and carts, and boots and beaded belts.

Through their voices we learned about building relationships and sharing perspectives and values, both technical and traditional, and tangible and intangible. The participants demonstrated the benefits of Aboriginal people and conservators and museum professionals working together.

This report summarizes what we heard during the symposium. We hope it will stimulate more collaboration and exchanges among Aboriginal people, conservators, and mainstream museums.

Preserving Living Cultures

We heard that, for Aboriginal people, objects are part of their living culture. The objects embody the songs, dances, history, and spiritual values of the people who created them, and they were made to be used. In fact, the objects become meaningless if they are not used in daily life and ceremonies.

We don’t have a word for objects in our language; they are always things “that do something”. So although we are putting objects in display cases in museums, these are living, breathing items.(Thomas V. Hill, p. 236)1

We heard of old wounds and past wrongs — how First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people were separated from their language, their culture, and their heritage. We heard how these wounds are healing. We heard calls for leadership and action to reclaim and ensure the survival of Aboriginal heritage, cultures, and languages.

We heard how the relationship between museums and Aboriginal people has been evolving over the last 30 years, and, while it may not be fast enough for some, how this relationship is being rebuilt.

Canadian museums are now more likely to try to surpass each other in establishing friendly relations with local Aboriginal communities. Since the release of Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships Between Museums and First Peoples (Task Force on Museums and First Peoples 1992), several museums across Canada have built such strong relations. […] Our maturity as colonial/post-colonial nations has to be one that tells of our histories, philosophies, and identities, otherwise we are still trapped forever making excuses. (Gerald McMaster, p. 358)

We heard that Elders are the experts when it comes to preserving the heritage of their communities. They are often the only source of traditional knowledge about how and why objects were made.

…..the Elders mentioned to us that “saving” does not necessarily mean “not using”.  There are things that were created, not to put in a display case, but to be used, until such time as the object that comes from the land, returns to the land. (Gilbert Whiteduck, p. 295) [translation]

We heard conservators speak of seeking out Elders for their specialized knowledge of the social and spiritual meaning attached to an object, and appropriate care procedures for it. And we heard the conservators’ concerns that this specialized knowledge could be lost when the Elders die.

All of the equipment [tools] I have showed you, I have heard about from my father. He taught me many things, and even though I did not use some of this equipment with my father, it was from him that I learned of these traditional tools. (Inuit Elder Mariano Aupilardjuk, p. 165)

Conserving Heritage Objects

The expertise of conservators has traditionally been in the domain of the scientific and the material. Preserving the physical integrity of an object has been assumed to coincide with the preservation of the overall meaning and purpose of the object. And while conservation decision-making has always been based on a broad concept of cultural heritage preservation, many conservators have been trained to focus on preserving the material aspects of cultural heritage by conserving the physical object itself, and by managing the object’s environment — humidity, temperature, and light.

While positive changes have occurred during the past few decades, some museum professionals, including conservators, still feel reluctant to recommend or take courses of action (such as loaning unique and fragile objects that could be damaged or lost when used in ceremonies) that could decrease object safety. In part, this reluctance is due to “their training and expectations learned through Western museological processes” (Jessica S. Johnson in Marian Andrea Kaminitz, Barbara S. Mogel, Barbara Cranmer, Jessica Johnson, Kevin Cranmer, and Thomas V. Hill, p. 80).

We heard that, in some mainstream museums, heritage collections are still considered to be a collection of objects. Such objects are “lifeless”, separated from the stories that give them life. Sitting on shelves in display cases, they become a thing, an artifact or specimen, a work of art, or a sacred emblem. We also heard about recent museum exhibitions in which objects have been accompanied by a narrative or interpretive discourse that presents context and, foremost, the Aboriginal voice.

Recent exhibitions of Aboriginal heritage at the McCord Museum would not have been possible without collaboration with First Nations individuals and communities. The incorporation of the ideas, knowledge, and skills of these communities has led to a well-informed approach to the multifaceted complexities of Aboriginal cultures and to informative and visually striking displays. (Anne MacKay, p. 58)

Reconciling the Tangible and the Intangible

We heard many Aboriginal experts, conservators, and conservation scientists confirm the importance of focussing on the cultural values and contexts associated with objects as well as on their physical condition.

The conservation profession distinguishes itself, as a group, by a concern for the well-being of objects. Yet this must always remain secondary to an overriding responsibility to maintain relationships borne out of respect for others and their culture, and a desire to help preserve culture through the application of sound, scientifically justified treatment processes. (Andrew Thorn, p. 338)

They agreed that understanding the cultural use and significance of objects is as central as understanding their materials and agents of deterioration.

Museum conservators must also, according to their ethics, respect the societies that create objects and the communities with whose history and identity they are connected. The object contains both truth and meaning from the past, and in the present provides a common ground for both the Aboriginal and the conservation communities. (Charles Costain, p. 172)

We heard about collaborative heritage preservation projects that brought together technical and traditional approaches. We learned that there is no “one size fits all” approach to creating and sustaining partnerships between museum professionals and Aboriginal people, and sharing decisions about the conservation, exhibition, and use of objects originating from Aboriginal communities.

Examples of collaborative projects:

  • A conservator tailored the treatment of fragments of an ancient robe to not only preserve its material evidence and research potential, but also to fulfill the wishes and needs of the First Nations community from which it originated and to which it will return (Kjerstin Mackie, pp. 115–119).
  • Conservators gained a greater understanding of Native American objects within their museum by visiting the community of origin to observe how the objects were traditionally used (e.g. in ceremonies) than they could have by studying them in a conservation laboratory (Kim Cullen Cobb, Anna Hodson, and Steven A. Tamayo, pp. 35–40; Marian Andrea Kaminitz, Barbara S. Mogel, Barbara Cranmer, Jessica Johnson, Kevin Cranmer, and Thomas V. Hill, pp. 75–87).
  • Preservation treatments of ancient khipu and rock art involved the community or traditional owners, who contributed to the understanding and use of the material and participated in decisions regarding its conservation (Renata Peters, Frank Salomon, Rosa Choque González, and Rosalía Choque González, pp. 95–100; Andrew Thorn, pp. 333–339).
  • University heritage researchers and a village community redefined the role and use of heritage objects in the community (Laurette Grégoire and Élise Dubuc, pp. 227–232).
  • A First Nations community in Canada helped a national museum overseas develop an appreciation of the value of bringing objects to their place of origin and the inherent power the objects had to generate new insights and engage people (Charles Stable and Rosalie Scott, pp. 61–66).
  • Conservators investigated skin processing technology by linking traditional knowledge with the visual and analytical characterization and identification of the skin materials (Torunn Klokkernes and Anne May Olli, pp. 109–114).
  • An Elder, a pictograph researcher, and a rock painting expert documented and digitally enhanced heavily faded rock art imagery at several sacred pictograph sites (William A. Allen, Liam M. Brady, and Elder Peter Decontie, pp. 277–289).
  • Archival and heritage institutions and Aboriginal communities created Web exhibits and databases of photographic or archival collections to increase access to them and to gather information on the images and documents from the originating communities (Cheryl Avery and Deborah Lee, pp. 133–138; Beth Greenhorn, pp. 257–264; David Morin, pp. 265–267).
  • First Nations communities and national/community museums collaborated to organize workshops on skills and technologies associated with items of traditional material culture (Judy Thompson, Ingrid Kritsch, and Suzan Marie, pp. 101–108; Nancy Palliser Kalai and Louis Gagnon, pp. 253–256).
  • Experts from museums and Aboriginal communities researched and shared technical information on the identification, removal, and mitigation of pesticide residues (applied by former well-intentioned owners and caretakers to prevent insect attacks), so that these objects could be used safely (P. Jane Sirois, Jessica S. Johnson, Aaron Shugar, Jennifer Poulin, and Odile Madden, pp. 175–186; Kathleen Bond and Heidi Swierenga, pp. 187–193; Richard W. Hill and Peter Reuben, pp. 195–199; Nancy Odegaard and Werner S. Zimmt, pp. 217–225).

Working Together

We heard repeatedly the importance of respect in a collaborative partnership.

Respect for the object is the common ground for conservators and Aboriginal people. Many objects and ancestral cultural materials from Aboriginal communities hold sacred or religious meaning and must be treated with respect. This theme of respect for the object is an essential part of the Code of Ethics and Guidance for Practice of the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property and the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAC/CAPC).

…all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the integrity of the property, including physical, conceptual, historical and aesthetic considerations. (CAC/CAPC, as quoted by Stephen J. Augustine, p. 7)

A shared respect for one another is also essential. We heard how important it is that conservators understand and respect Aboriginal values, which are focussed on preserving the living culture — people, traditions, and identity — rather than the physical aspects of an object. Mutual respect also enables Aboriginal people to understand the value of conservation science and technology, including material analysis and treatment techniques.

Our experience indicates that if the Aboriginal members of the community trust you and respect you, they will grant you a great deal of freedom to advise them and make informed decisions. (Jack W. Brink and Narcisse Blood, p. 346)

We heard that it takes time to develop respect.Meeting, listening, and discussing, even participating in community ceremonies and feasts, can encourage the building of trust and lead to respectful collaborations based on understanding and agreement.

I would put it to you — the experts, the scientists, the representatives from institutions — that you need to be patient. You need to take the time to understand. Give us time, as we very often need to learn together. We will not get anywhere without a true, respectful, and collaborative partnership. (Gilbert W. Whiteduck, p. 295)

Building collaborative partnerships also requires a commitment on behalf of museums to create policies that are holistic. By acknowledging shared responsibility, a museum’s core policy statement can provide the framework for creating equal partnerships and developing programs that incorporate Aboriginal values. Protocol agreements between a museum and an Aboriginal community can also be used to establish and recognize the equality of the parties — both contribute and both benefit — and establish mutual goals.

Benefits of Working Together

We heard about the mutual benefits of a partnership based on trust and shared goals.

The meetings, particularly those with [Tlicho] Elders, helped the conservators develop a new appreciation of the value of bringing objects to their place of origin and the inherent power the objects had to generate discussions and engage people. …The objects that travelled to Tlicho communities provided many Elders with their first opportunity to see artifacts from their past and to draw links with them, thus facilitating stories of past times and memories of youth. Through interactions with the objects and their Elders, Tlicho youth were provided with a direct link to their history. (Charles Stable and Rosalie Scott, pp. 63, 66)

By taking the time to build relationships, conservators and other museum professionals and staff can better understand Aboriginal cultures. This understanding will enable them to develop better approaches for engaging Aboriginal people in decisions about conservation, exhibition, and use, and result in museums that are more relevant to Aboriginal communities.

The context for many of the outfits …was brought to life by the celebration of music and dance at the powwow: the way the dresses were made; the sound of the jingles; the easy, elegant flow of the fringes, all animated by the dancers keeping time to the beat of drums and singing. Seeing these dresses worn by dancers instilled a reverence for the outfits that moved them well beyond the static interpretation of an exhibit. (Kim Cullen Cobb, Anna Hodson, and Steven A. Tamayo, p. 39)

By touching, examining, and handling museum objects, and using them in traditional ceremonies, Aboriginal people can learn about their unique cultural history.

…the Mechif [can] look back at their history, as their forefathers did, and [can] understand and help their children know that there are tangible things such as historical objects, old family treasures, archival records, and photographs…that could be used to reconstruct their history. (Métis Elder Raoul McKay, p. 70)

By collaborating with Aboriginal communities and cultural centres, conservators and other museum professionals can gain new perspectives on the collections in their care. Elders and other Aboriginal people can explain how and why objects were made, and provide insights on art, history, anthropology, archaeology, and language.

Including tradition bearers [Elders or a young person with traditional knowledge of a craft or art] in investigative research on an artifact enables the researcher and the museum to interpret and subsequently handle and preserve the artifact according to its holistic needs. (Torunn Klokkernes and Anne May Olli, p. 110)

By incorporating these perspectives into their decision-making, conservators can achieve a finer balance between the tangible and intangible when proposing conservation interventions, and find mutually beneficial solutions if disagreements arise. And through this understanding of intangible values, they can contribute to the development of new models for museums — models that are based on the values of Aboriginal people so they can tell their own stories.

…conservation is holistic in nature and not just about technical and empirical results. By this I mean that conservation efforts should address more than just the physical condition of the artifact or feature or place; conservation efforts should also address the preservation of the cultural values and contexts associated with the artifact, feature, or place so that their integrity as living places remains intact.(Michael A. Klassen, p. 330)

We heard both conservators and Aboriginal people speak about the vital information contained within objects. Both groups acknowledged that the preservation of the information within an object may take precedence over the preservation of the object itself.

The treatment of the fragments [of the robe of the “Long-ago Person Found”] was guided more by the desire to extract and preserve information than simply to preserve the fragments of the garment…. I can almost hear the voices of the past as clearly as the questions of the present. (Kjerstin Mackie, pp. 116, 118)

Care for an artifact may mean jeopardizing its physical condition in order to nurture the knowledge associated with it. This ultimately ensures its existence for generations. It is often not the artifact that is fragile; it is the knowledge that the artifact has to share that can be fragile. (Susan Parsons, Jody Beaumont, Glenda Bolt, and Georgette McLeod, p. 41)

We heard conservators and Aboriginal people share technical and traditional information about objects — how they were made, what materials were used, what technologies were applied, and the circumstances in which they were created — information that can be recorded and preserved for future use.

Dyes, paints, preservatives, and tanning technologies represent the collective knowledge of the people involved in the process of creation — from the killing of the animal or gathering of raw materials through to the wearing of a garment or the completion of a basket. (Sherry Farrell Racette, p. 17)

We heard how scientific investigations can provide information about objects (e.g. where they came from, how they were made and by whom, how they deteriorate, and how they can be restored) that can be used to preserve and care for them. For example, assessment of the condition of a parchment document can lead to preservation of the information it contains, and assessment of the strength of totem poles can indicate when stabilization is required.

…now all the Gitxsan totem pole replicas are carved locally and then raised up in the ancient traditional manner, except for the concrete and steel [which anchors them to the earth]. That is our new Gitxsan tradition now. (Ya’Ya Axgagoodiit (Charles Peter Joseph Heit), p. 129)

We also heard how Aboriginal people can use the technical information obtained through scientific and technical analysis of heritage materials, and how conservation science and treatments can enable Aboriginal objects to live longer lives. For example, integrated pest management (which controls and prevents attack by insects) can prevent deterioration and loss of natural materials, and protective coatings can slow the erosion of rock art images.

…this approach [collaboration] has begun to demonstrate the usefulness of technology… in recovering and preserving a visual element of Anishinaabe cultural heritage that links the actions of ancestors with living communities. (William A. Allen, Liam M. Brady, and Elder Peter Decontie, p. 283)

We heard how Aboriginal people are using traditional tools and equipment from museums as templates to revive skills, crafts, and technologies that have long been forgotten due to technological advances. Although such handling, wearing, and studying may put the individual objects at greater risk of damage, reviving the lost skill will ensure their continued manufacture and use, which will, in the long run, result in their preservation.

Each [project] aimed to revive traditional skills associated with particular material culture objects — skills that had either been lost to their communities of origin, or that were almost lost.(Judy Thompson, Ingrid Kritsch, and Suzan Marie, p. 106)

We heard that this kind of direct contact with the tools and technologies of the past helps revive Aboriginal communities in the present, and provides a foundation for the future.

[Community] Members developed their own methods for preserving valuable objects while keeping them as active parts of their lives. (Laurette Grégoire and Élise Dubuc, p. 230)

We heard that conservation decisions are better when they take into consideration the Aboriginal values and viewpoints along with the technical perspectives.

The use, purpose, and intention of an artwork must always be considered when choosing a treatment to suit an individual artifact. From working with Charles Heit, and other First Nations artists, it has become apparent that a treatment will have no value if the intention of the artwork isn’t understood. If the history of the people, as well as the history of the artifact and its location and associations, aren’t understood and brought into the consideration process, then there is the possibility that conservation becomes an unwanted intervention. (Andrew Todd, p. 124)

The benefits of working together also extend to the future.

Preparing for the Future

One of the main themes of the symposium was the importance of engaging Aboriginal youth in the preservation of their cultural heritage.

We heard about projects that used Web technologies not only to preserve and transmit information on cultural objects, photographs, and archival documents, but also to reach and engage youth.

Through the use of digital technologies, the site [Tipatshimuna] offers Innu communities the means to document, preserve, share, and promote the richness of their culture with Innu youth and the world. Most importantly, it is strengthening the younger generation’s connection to their culture and language. (Wendy A. Thomas, p. 269)

We heard about Aboriginal community initiatives that involve youth in preserving and using community cultural heritage objects.

The children come [to the Baker Lake Inuit Heritage Centre] and the Elder teaches the traditional ways, songs, and games. The objects are meaningful to us. There are still many people alive who remember their uses. We still use some of these objects and we know they are part of the lifestyle of our ancestors. They touch our life through our feelings, emotions, and our sight. (Inuit Elder Winnie Owingayak, p. 13)

We heard repeatedly the importance of ensuring that professional conservators and others who work with Aboriginal objects encompass a holistic approach. We also heard the importance of increasing the participation of Aboriginal people in the field of arts and heritage and conservation in the future:

… while we need to see the emergence of a unique conservation approach that fuses both technical and traditional methods, we equally need to see the emergence of a conservation workforce that itself is representative of the cultures whose patrimony it presumes to safeguard. (John Moses, p. 25)

There is no one-size-fits-all design for education and training programs. As the needs and traditions of each individual and each community vary, so too must the teaching and learning methods, models, and solutions. The following examples offer some ideas:

  • A college worked in collaboration with Aboriginal communities and organizations to ensure that cultural sensitivity was embedded in its conservation training programs, and that the programs met the needs of the communities and the students (Gayle McIntyre, pp. 317–323).
  • Master’s courses in conservation were designed to foster mutual learning, respect, and ethics by teaming students and faculty with Indigenous community members to promote shared care practices (Ellen J. Pearlstein, pp. 305–310; Marcia Langton and Robyn Sloggett, pp. 375–377).
  • An internship program at a major museum provided Aboriginal participants with professional and technical training and with practical experiences that incorporated aspects of traditional care as part of standard museum practice (Jameson C. Brant, John Moses, and Martha Segal, pp. 297–303).

We heard about the deep and tangible benefits of educators, communities, students, and teachers working together, e.g. museum staff acquiring new knowledge from informal discussions with interns, knowledge that is not found in museum catalogue cards and databases.

… new knowledge … includes new insights into their work with ethnographic objects and new approaches to treatment — not only specific techniques but also cultural sensitivity. In addition, they have learned some intriguing stories that bring greater meaning and life to artifacts. (Jameson C. Brant, John Moses, and Martha Segal, p. 301)

We heard of education programs where conservation students gain both technical knowledge and an understanding of the goals of Aboriginal and tribal museums.

… students completed thorough examinations of ACCM [Agua Caliente Cultural Museum] objects, including plant fibre investigations of basketry, and carried out conservation treatments and re-housing based on collaborative discussions with ACCM staff and guest instructors. …  The ACCM staff was thrilled with both the technological information and the sensitive treatments, which were influenced by firsthand experience in basket weaving with Largo [Donna Largo, basketweaver and member of the Santa Rosa Cahuilla Band], and histories and accounts provided by subsequent lecturers. (Ellen J. Pearlstein, p. 305, 309)

We heard that educators working with Aboriginal communities are challenged to think differently and to listen actively to the needs of students and communities.

Curriculum designers and faculty had to stop trying to think in terms of conventional, mechanical, curriculum design. …Working together on meaningful and relevant curriculum has also resulted in a shift away from conventional museum practices and a move towards an appropriate selection of managing and preserving tangible and intangible heritage, both historic and contemporary, oral and visual, using artifacts and landscapes. (Gayle McIntyre, p. 320)


The learning continues always. (Anonymous feedback card, cited in Miriam Clavir, p. 33)

Over the 5 days of the symposium in September 2007, participants shared their views on the practice of Aboriginal heritage conservation. In the spirit of respect, trust, and mutual collaboration that permeated the symposium, we celebrated many successes. But we also acknowledged that much remains to be done. In the end, we all shared the belief that conservation decisions and actions that incorporate respect and the will to work together as equal partners will move us forward to achieve further successes.

In helping to preserve the past, conservation can build bridges to the future. It has great potential to help bring people together in the pursuit of mutual goals for preserving the past of all peoples. This path requires mutual respect of all peoples involved. It will also require the willingness for compromise in some cases. With such an approach, conservation can help us all achieve a better future and understanding of ourselves. (Anonymous.)2

Follow-up by the Canadian Conservation Institute

CCI will be responding to the findings of Symposium 2007 in the coming years. In addition to our ongoing training, information, and services for the preservation of Aboriginal heritage objects, we plan to:

  • develop a policy to define how CCI will consult with Elders and communities where conservation of Aboriginal heritage items is to be undertaken
  • offer two subsidized workshops per year to Aboriginal organizations across Canada (subsidized CCI workshops have previously been available only through provincial museum associations, whose membership does not include many Aboriginal museums or cultural centres)
  • explore the possibility of creating an Aboriginal internship position at CCI (within the next 2–3 years)
  • continue or initiate research projects that are of benefit to Aboriginal communities (e.g. investigate ways to mitigate pesticides residues on objects, reinvestigate the condition of totem poles in Nan Sdins (‘Ninstints’) World Heritage Site)
  • develop an Aboriginal portal on CCI’s Web site that will include information and references of interest to those concerned with preserving Aboriginal heritage

  1. All quotes are taken from Preserving Aboriginal Heritage: Technical and Traditional Approaches. Proceedings of Symposium 2007 (published by the Canadian Conservation Institute in December 2008).
  2. At the conclusion of the symposium, young Aboriginal participants were asked, “How can conservation help?” This was one of the responses.

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