73. Sanchita Balachandran Shifts the Framework for Conservation with Untold Stories
Welcome to museum archipelago. I'm in Elsner. Pews Eum archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums each episode so is never longer than fifteen minutes so let's get started. The field of conservation was created to fight change to prevent objects from becoming dusty broken or rusted but fighting to keep cultural objects preserved creates a certain mindset the mindset of protector a mindset. It's too easy to imagine objects and cultures. In the state of stasis. This is how it always was and will be forever. Often I mean just given the colonial oneal had an imperial histories of museums. It was because people were going to be gone forever. That culture was gone. And so this is the last trace but in fact. That's not how cultural heritage works it. It's transformed it's changed. It continues on in different forms and a lot of the way the Conservatives think about cultural heritage is is about out mitigating that change. which makes it a little bit fossilized but to me that changes where things are really vibrant exciting and people are so closely connected to cultural cultural heritage that it really feels alive? This is since Cheetah Bala Chandran Associate Director of the John Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Hello my name is Cinci Bala Alexander. I'm conservative and I'm trained in the conservation of archaeological materials in particular and my day job is the associate director of the Archaeological Theological Museum at Johns Hopkins University. Bala Chandran founded untold stories a project that pursues conservation profession that represents and preserves a full spectrum of human cultural heritage for the past few years. The project has been hosting public events at the annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation Conservation Untold Stories emerged of bollocks hundreds frustration with how narrowly the field of conservation has been defined at felt that there were literally early too many untold stories in the field of conservation. I wanted to find ways to actually start to think about what else cultural heritage could mean other than say the things we typically think of as belonging in a museum or many of us cultural heritage means going to this important looking building that has paintings and sculpture and has labels labels next to it and I think we kind of decided in some ways at that's cultural heritage and preservation means taking care of those things and really I've become more and more aware error and curious about the fact that cultural heritage is much more complicated and diverse set of practices. It's often not necessarily about a single object or a thing but rather how that thing might function within a community or communities as as part of a series of practices and exchanges and storytelling and I just wanted to have a way to kind of work with people who are really doing that work outside the museum and doing it in ways that I think preserved Europe but also change cultural practices since untold stories takes place at the annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation. A lot of professionals in the field Are already gathered there. The meetings attract over one thousand conservators blake many professional conferences. The meetings are often held in a nondescript hotel how setting but untold stories makes it a practice to conceptualize where attendees are sitting and the history that preceded them an example of this is the twentieth nineteen eighteen untold stories event titled Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation. How many times have you been to a conference and you could be anywhere right? I mean you're in this big room and you never leave the hotel or the conference center and part of what I was interested in was trying to actually place a somewhere so twenty one thousand nine since we were actually meeting at the Mohegan Sun which is a Mohegan owned casino. We were on native land. It seemed like a really important opportunity. -tunities to talk about native sovereignty kind of history of genocide in our own country. The fact that anyone who's non-indigenous in this country is a settler settler colonialist but to really think about what this means in terms of how we take care of collections that have come to us as a result of historical happenstance stance but also a very violent past and to acknowledge the fact that museums which for most of us who work in museums are very safe. Welcoming and joyful places uses are evidence of this history of of pain and removal so the opportunity to work with the commod educational initiative was really exciting. Because because it's a partly native co-founded and they do a lot of educational work around questions of how even think about the history of this country story and to me. That was really important to be able to say in native space as opposed to you know in a place somewhere else. Part of of Bala. Hundreds point is that there isn't such a thing as a textualist cultural material. The intentionally nondescript conference ballroom has a lot in common with deliberately sterile museum environment episode. Sixty eight of this show features an interview with Ed Wanda's spears director of programming and outreach at the adamant educational initiative and one of the convenors of the twenty nineteen untold stories event in the episode. She discusses her presentation about how native native narratives are violently presented through White Lens in museums. It was in Donna spheres of Who suggested the title she had worked in museums? She's very familiar with these questions. And she's the one who suggested indigenous futures which forces you to recognize that this is not something of the past. We really wanted to do something. The thing that felt like we were going to push. This had to be uncomfortable but it also had to be aspirational. Where do we go now? And how can as conservatives servers we actually be part of this very kind of collaborative supportive mission to ensure futures. We can't make it happen by ourselves. It's it's not like we're saving anybody and that's another big concern of mine. There's a real sort of savior mentality that I think conservation has ask we save objects and I certainly came out of graduate school thinking that I was going to save everything and to me. That's a very problematic way to think about it because frankly if the objects still survives it didn't need me it made it thousands of years without me somehow. We've decided that we're the ones that making the that make these things live live forever which is pure arrogance so part of this event was really to think about how as conservatives can come up with action items and by action items. It was practices but more than anything of kind of Shipton in a mental framework for working much more equitably and more humbly to really have a sense of respect for this notion that there has already been a history before you and so when you enter into this hopefully collaborative relationship you need to acknowledge alleged. Things have survived for a long time without your intervention. And they don't need you but you could actually provide some sort of service some sort of benefit that could actually really help the untold stories team. True to their mission is careful not to present the workshop as a single solution or even a set of solutions. The team wants wants to counter the assumption within the profession. That all you need to do is go to one workshop and then you're all done you know. Unfortunately this doesn't change the working working practices it doesn't change the mindset. It doesn't change the way an organization functions and what happens is then marginalized people are called upon again and again to kind of keep performing this vulnerability and this discomfort for themselves in order to educate people who are unwilling to do the work that consistent like every single day for the rest of their lives work that will be required to make transformative change possible part of what in the twenty nineteen in conversation we. We felt very strongly we had to say is if if you really believe in equality if you really want to do something that is truly collaborative that does not assume some sort of hierarchy. It means being really uncomfortable the entire time and maybe at the end of it things will change but you you still have to kind of follow through on it when it gets really uncomfortable. And the fact is most marginalized communities. People have done this entire lives so it it just feels like it's time for you. Know I think in general the museum community to say we're willing to engage in these kinds of difficult ongoing perpetual natural conversations. It's really interesting to approach these issues from the framework of such a technical profession. What is different? What has changed interest in the field of conservation since you were in school? I I was in Grad school two decades ago. So it's you know. I guess I would break it down into technical practices desist which I think most conservatives would would think of themselves as doing sort of things with their hands changing a surface in some way and then more social practices this or how do you how do you be in this world. In terms of technical practices. I mean some of the things that we do on a regular basis or certainly did to me raise a lot of questions about how do even come up with this. So you know one of the things that I was trained on and I think a lot of conservatives still do is something like spit cleaning leaning for a long time it was known that something like human saliva has really amazing cleaning properties. And you know it's the reason why your mom might have like littered Dom uh-huh and rubbed off your face but but it works really well and it's you know there have been attempts to make this much more scientific Tillich. What are the enzymes designs for example in saliva that work? But you know now thinking about it. My Gosh you to spit on someone else's things it's really really strange concept and yet it was something that was really suggested as a very efficacious way of doing a treatments for me. This is meant that I really have to be extremely aware of the choices. I'm making an at least be aware of the discomfort that they raise in me when I started thinking about what I'm actually doing. And then there's how how does one work with anybody else certainly in academia and I would say also in in museums are very hierarchical spaces where you know in the museum. The end the sort of curator often has had the privilege of storytelling and often when people are not within. The museum are consulted their consulted assaulted. Either after most of the work has been done or that that information is extracted from them and presented as part of this larger narrative rather than allowing doing people to simply say what they they believe. These objects are how you know. The story needs to be presented for those in an established field like museum professionals or conservators. It's easy to go with the language and practice that exists before you arrive. Projects Untold Stories challenge those assumptions and help help create a new model for me. It's really about kind of activating cultural heritage. In in very kind of living ways underlying all of this work with untold stories was to really think about what is possible in terms of preserving cultural heritage if you think of cultural heritage as being something that's preserved by people in in conservation labs only to that's really limiting and it also is untrue because we have millennia of people caring in for their things and their stories and passing this knowledge on through oral traditions and other kinds of traditions so to somehow claim that we are the only ones capable of doing this kind of preservation. Work is fundamentally untrue and so to me kind of bringing up this resilience but also just this joy of doing miss incredible connected. Human work was something that I wanted to be around the next untold. Stories event will be held. During the American Institute of Conservation's turns annual conference in Salt Lake City from May nineteenth to May twenty third twenty twenty the title of the event will be preserving cultural landscapes. And if you can't physically attend the event will be live streamed you can learn more about the untold stories project and watch recordings of past events at untold told stories dot live this episode of Museum archipelago is brought to you by a new museum. podcast cast called stories here. The latest episode is an excellent two part series about the eastern state penitentiary in Philadelphia. It includes the story three of a family secret being hidden from daughter revealed after talking at the site with former incarcerated person. The Ad Copy did not ask me to say this but I feel like anyone interested in museum archipelago will really enjoy stories here in addition to the episodes about the eastern state penitentiary. I think my audience would. I really enjoy the episode about the international coalition of sites of conscience to listen to the stories here dot com or type stories. Here into your favorite podcast player. My thanks to stories here for Supporting Museum Archipelago Just Justin time for your holiday. Travel are archipelago at the movie series continues with two thousand and four is national treasure decoration. The most most dramatic moments take place at museums across Washington. DC Philadelphia and. New York's wounded by guards video. Ma But the movie and Protagonist Nicholas Cage page go far deeper on issues of public ownership provenance and museum tour groups than the action packed. Plot suggests go. I'm joined by friend of the show and IRA FRIEND REBECCA REAPS TEEN to discuss this wild ride of the archipelago at at the movies. Deep dives into national treasure and night at the museum are now available. Exclusively to club archipelago members. Now the member yet join now at Patriotair Dot Com Slash Museum archipelago. This has been museum. Archipelago you'll find a full transcript of this episode served as well as shown it's and links at Museum Archipelago Dot Com if this is your first. Show subscribe for free in your favorite podcast player. And if this isn't sent leave us a rating or review. Wherever you get your podcasts? Thanks for listening and next time bring a friend.