Three days of activities, April 18-20th, 2018 surrounded the Indigenous ontologies working group in New York City. The Indigenous ontologies working group events launched the working groups series that is part of “Conserving Active Matter,” A Cultures of Conservation Research Project which is a collaboration between Bard Graduate Center, the Humboldt University (Berlin), and the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). Over the next several years four working groups will explore materials science and new ways of thinking about matter to think about the future of conservation. The project will culminate in an exhibit in Spring 2020. This post recaps the Indigenous Ontologies working group activities in April in New York City. Read more information about the other three working groups, history (fall 2018), materials science (spring 2019), and philosophy (fall 2019) on the Cultures of Conservation webpage and a recap of our kick-off event in November 2017, and video of the multi-day event.

The Indigenous ontologies working group, led by BGC’s Aaron Glass, considers the fact that diverse peoples of the world bring their own cultural values and orientations to the material realm: their own fundamental notions of what “the object” is and isn’t; what its proper and persistent relationships to humans and other-than-human beings might be; what protocols surround its conservation, if indeed it ought to be preserved at all. Thinking globally, Indigenous ontologies of “Active Matter” explores case studies that expands western scientific, aesthetic and philosophical paradigms around the collection, care and exhibition of living cultural heritage – tangible and otherwise. The working group events began with an evening of public presentations by invited speakers, on Wednesday, April 18th. The next day, Thursday, April 19th, the three speakers and BGC Cultures of Conservation collaborators visited collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History to discuss objects of “Active matter” that had been selected by the speakers. They were also joined in conversation by curators, conservators and other staff members at each museum for these conversations. On Friday afternoon, Thursday’s group reconvened at BGC with invited conservators, curators, and academics from the NYC area for a workshop that picked up conversations that began Wednesday, and continued Thursday.

Wednesday evening’s public event began with an introduction to the “Active Matter” C of C research project and the Indigenous Ontologies working group by Aaron Glass followed by three invited presentations. All three of the speakers, Jamie Jacobs, Rose Evans, and Sanchita Balachandran, with respective specialties in Haudenosaune, Māori, and South Asian material culture, work in different capacities in cultural institutions with Indigenous material culture. Video of the evening program, including the introduction and presentations by all three speakers is available here. Jamie Jacobs is a Collections Assistant for the Rock Foundation, Rochester Museum and Science Center. His talk was titled, “The Orator’s Dilema: Wampum as Material, Media, and Memory”. Rose Evans is a conservator and the Director of the ObjectLab (Auckland, New Zealand). Her talk was titled, “Making our Past Visible: Toi Moko and Our Connection with Whakapapa (Genealogy).” Sanchita Balachandran is the Associate Director, The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, and Senior Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Her talk was titled, “The Museum Was Like Heaven, All the Gods Being There: Approaches to the Preservation of Archaeological-Devotional Objects at the Madras Government Museum, India, in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries”.

Each speaker shared case studies from their experiences of working with Indigenous material culture that raised issues of western traditions of conservation, museum practices, and the relationships between Indigenous peoples and museums. We encourage you to watch the presentations and discussion on BGC TV.

Following Wednesday evening’s public event, Thursday’s conversations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History allowed us to do deep dives into conversations about individual Indigenous objects, their materials, meanings, the history of conservation practices in cultural institutions and Indigenous perspectives on the treatment of these objects. With the background provided by Wednesday evening’s presentations, this resulted in more fruitful conversations and highlighted parallel and distinct differences amongst these Indigenous traditions conceptions of conservation treatment, collection, and practices.

Friday’s workshop which included around twenty-five conservators, curators, and academics from the NYC area who specialize in Indigenous material culture broadened our conversation to include Indigenous peoples and their relationship to material culture outside of the Haudenosaune, Māori, and South Asian traditions. The session culminated with conversations surrounding the presentation of Indigenous ontologies in the “Active Matter” Cultures of Conservation exhibit, including exhibit themes, potential object selections and the future of the “working group” over the next few years. We are immensely grateful to all of our participants over the three days of activities and look forward to the next “Active Matter” working group series in the fall.