The afternoon panels of the “Conserving Active Matter” symposium presented perspectives from Indigenous Ontologies and Materials Science. This was followed by a Response and Discussion session with the Monday night speakers to end the symposium.

BGC’s Aaron Glass, a cultural anthropologist, introduced the Indigenous Ontologies session (link to video). In his brief introduction he clarified the meaning of “Indigenous Ontologies” for this project and presented a number of questions to the group to highlight an Indigenous view of objects. “Indigenous ontologies” is defined by Aaron as culture-specific theories of being that have the potential to challenge standard Cartesian approaches to matter. He asked us to consider, from Indigenous perspectives, each of the three terms in the symposium’s title, “When we say ‘Active’ do we mean molecules?”, “Are molecules in motion or animate ‘agents’?”, “‘Matter’ in relation to what or whom?”, “What are we ‘conserving’?” Raw material is what is used to make an object, but knowledge is embedded in the processes, places, and uses associated with objects. Indigenous objects play an active role in Indigenous value and knowledge systems grounded in relationships between materials, makers, and users, from the past, present, and future, including non-human beings.

Jolene Rickard, a citizen of the Tuscarora nation, who is an artist, curator and assistant professor in the History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University, spoke next about “Theories of ‘Things’ we are not supposed to talk about”. Her talk highlighted how Native objects serve as a means of transmission of histories and relationships to place and to resources. Philosophies, metaphors, and stories are shared through Indigenous objects. Jolene highlighted aspects of Indigenous creation stories that are being taken up by contemporary Haudenosaune (Iroquois) artists, a process she views as cultural resurgence in response to recent, violent histories of colonial disruption. She featured a few examples, such as Shelli Niro’s Sky Woman series and several examples from Rickard’s own work, like “Corn Blue Room,” a multi-media installation at the Denver Art Museum that included 6 braids of blue corn. When the piece was deinstalled, Jolene elected to have the corn distributed to soup houses in the Denver area, thereby transforming her art media back into nourishing substance. The piece both reflects and enacts the transmission of Indigenous histories, social practices, and ecological knowledges; the continued growing of blue corn will ensure its availability as a medium when “Corn Blue Room” is reinstalled in the future.

Kelly McHugh, a conservator at the National Museum of the American Indian, spoke about “Activating Collections at the National Museum of the American Indian.” She began her presentation discussing the challenges presented in caring for Indigenous collections when training of western-based conservators focuses on the materiality of objects to inform conservation decisions. This focus on materials does not suffice for caring for Indigenous collections and their storage. NMAI conservators’ work is primarily exhibit preparation-driven and McHugh highlighted a few examples of the collaborations and exchanges of knowledge between NMAI conservators and Native communities. This includes consultation about the ongoing care of objects and workshops have been organized to bring Native artists and specialists to collaborate with NMAI staff to introduce Native technical knowledge about natural materials. She highlighted a few occasions this has occurred including materials such as copper and natural fibers, highlighting an example of Tlingit weaving with spruce root. McHugh reflected on how these collaborations have broadened her perspective in thinking about materials beyond the immediate object in a lab but the environment those materials come from, which provides insight into how they may behave, and why.

The final panel of the afternoon, “Materials Science” was introduced by Jennifer Mass, BGC’s Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science (link to video). She introduced a materials engineer’s perspective of understanding the activity or stabilization of an object of art. She posed the question, “If one asked a materials engineer when an object was stabilized, their answer would be when it reaches equilibrium with its environment.” The history of art conservation has focused on stabilization but according to Mass this cannot be its future. Is there an acceptable equilibrium for an object but also an acceptable equilibrium between all the stakeholders, the intended meaning, intended alteration mechanisms, the environment, artist, curator, society’s preservation instinct, viewing public, and future generations?

Marc Walton, an archaeological scientist at Northwestern University & Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts discussed the “Archaeology of Change: Innovation, Evolution and Use of Materials.” Archaeological scientists are interested in the development of technology. Researchers are often only left with an object and the archaeological record to understand past technologies. Relying on this evidence can provide information about the environment and available resources and tools available. Examination of evidence of use of the object along with its material properties provides insight into how objects were used and produced in the past.

Paul Messier, an art conservator at Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage presented on his work on photographs to highlight how technical studies of photographs can help understand artists’ intent, authenticity, and history of photographic materials. His presentation “Active Collections: Expressive Dimensions” highlighted his long-term collection and technical study of photographic paper. This has led to the creation of a database with technical specs of photographic paper that which he is using to understand authenticity of photographs.

The final few minutes of the symposium we returned to Monday night’s initial speakers, Materials Scientist Admir Masic (MIT), Conservator Glenn Wharton (NYU), and Philosopher Justin Broackes (Brown) for an opportunity to respond to the panelists (link to video). Some of the takeaways from this discussion were a shared enthusiasm for interdisciplinary dialogue, but also a recognition of the importance of a social dimension to caring for objects and the importance of non-professional stakeholders being part of the project. Likewise little-discussed was the political economy surrounding art and its impact on conservation practices. Glenn made an important statement about the importance of conservators being actively engaged in BGC’s 5-year initiative.

The opening symposium provoked a variety of engaging questions and we look forward to further discussion of these and other topics during the next phases of the project.

The next phase of the BGC Active matter project is an event in April dedicated to Indigenous Ontologies, please check back here at the BGC events page for more details in the new year!