Episode 73

73. Sanchita Balachandran Shifts the Framework for Conservation with Untold Stories


December 2nd, 2019

14 mins 59 secs

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About this Episode

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 — a mindset where it’s too easy to imagine objects and cultures in a state of stasis.

Sanchita Balachandran, Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, founded Untold Stories to change that mindset in the conservation profession. Through events at the annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation, Untold Stories expands cultural heritage beyond preserving the objects we might find in a museum.

In this episode, Balachandran talks about Untold Story’s 2019 event: Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation, avoiding the savior mentality, and how the profession has changed since she was in school.

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Photo credit: Jay T. Van Rensselear

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 73. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

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 where it’s too easy to imagine objects and cultures in a state of stasis -- that this is how it always was and will be forever.

Sanchita Balachandran: Often, I mean, just given the Colonial and 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's transformed. It's changed. It continues on in different forms. And a lot of the way that conservators think about cultural heritage is, is about mitigating that change, which makes it a little bit fossilized. But to me, that changes where things are really vibrant and exciting and people are so closely connected to cultural heritage, that it really feels alive.

This is Sanchita Balachandran, Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.

Sanchita Balachandran: Hello, my name is Sanchita Balachandran. I’m a conservator and I’m trained in the conservation of archaeological materials in particular. And my day job is the Associate Director at the Archaeological Museum at Johns Hopkins University.

Balachandran founded Untold Stories, a project that pursues a conservation profession that represents and preserves a fuller 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.

Untold Stories emerged out of Balachandran’s frustration with how narrowly conservation has been defined.

Sanchita Balachandran: I felt that there were, literally, 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.

For many of us, cultural heritage means going to this, you know, important-looking building that has paintings and sculpture and has labels next to it. And I think we've kind of decided in some ways that that's cultural heritage and preservation means taking care of those things. And really, I've become more and more aware and curious about the fact that cultural heritage is a 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 part of a series of practices and exchanges and storytelling. And I just wanted to have a way to work with people who are really doing that work outside the museum and doing it in ways that, I think preserve, 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 1000 conservators. Like many professional conferences, the meetings are often held in a nondescript hotel setting.

But Untold Stories makes it a practice to contextualize where attendees are sitting and the history that preceded them. An example of this is the 2019 Untold Stories event, titled Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation.

Sanchita Balachandran: 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 us somewhere.

So in 2019 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 to talk about Native sovereignty and the kind of history of genocide in our own country. The fact that anyone who's non-indigenous in this country is a 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, 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, you know, joyful places are evidence of this history of pain and removal. So, the opportunity to work with, the Akomawt Educational Initiative was really exciting because it's a partly Native cofounded and they do a lot of educational work around questions of how we even think about the history of this country. 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 Balachandran’s point is that there isn’t such a thing as a contextless cultural material: the intentionally non-descript conference ballroom has a lot in common with a deliberately sterile museum environment.

Episode 68 of this show features an interview with endawnis Spears, Director of Programming & Outreach at the Akomawt Educational Initiative and one of the conveners of 2019 Untold Stories event. In the episode, she discusses her presentation about how Native narratives are violently presented through a white lens in museums.

Sanchita Balachandran: It was in endawnis Spears of Akomawt 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 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 conservators 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 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 to, we save objects. And I certainly came out of graduate school thinking that I was going to save everything. Um, and to me that's a very problematic way to think about it because frankly, if the object still survives, it didn't need me. Right? It made it thousands of years without me. Somehow we've kind of decided that we're the ones that making the, that make these things live forever, which is pure arrogance. So part of this event was really to think about how as conservators can we come up with action items and by action items it was practices, but more than anything a kind of shift in a mental framework for working much more equitably and more humbly, you know, 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 that 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 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 to counter the assumption within the profession that all you need to do is go to one workshop and you're all done.

Sanchita Balachandran: Unfortunately this doesn't change the working practices. It doesn't change the mindset. It doesn't change the way an organization functions. And what happens is, you know, 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, the consistent -- like, every single day for the rest of their lives work -- that will be required to make transformative change possible.

So part of what, in the 2019 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 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 their entire lives.So 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 conversations.

It’s really interesting to approach these issues from the framework of such a technical profession. What is different, what has changed in the field of conservation since you were in school?

Sanchita Balachandran: I was in grad school two decades ago, so it's, you know... I guess I would break it down into technical practices, which I think most conservators would, would think of themselves as doing sort of things with their hands, changing a surface in some way and then more social practices. How do you be in this world? Uh, in terms of technical practices, some of the things that we do on a regular basis are certainly did to me raise a lot of questions about how do we even come up with this. So, you know, one of the things that I was trained on, and I think a lot of conservators still do, is something like spit cleaning, right? For a long time, uh, it was known that something like human saliva has really amazing cleaning properties. And, you know, it's the reason why your mom might've like licked her thumb and you know, rubbed a mark off your face. But, but it works really well and it's, you know, there have been attempts to make this much more scientific as to like, what are the enzymes, for example, in saliva that work. But you know, now thinking about it and my gosh, to spit on someone else's things, it's this really strange concept. And yet it was something that was really suggested as a very efficacious way of doing a treatment.

For me, this has meant that I really have to be extremely aware of the choices I'm making and at least be aware of the discomfort that they raise in me when I start thinking about what I'm actually doing. So that's the kind of technological discomfort and awareness. And then there's how, how does one work with anybody else? Certainly in academia, and I would say also in museums are very hierarchical spaces where, you know, in the museum the sort of curator often has had the privilege of storytelling. And often when people who are not within the museum are consulted, they're consulted either after most of the work has been done or that that information is kind of extracted from them and presented as part of this larger narrative rather than allowing people to simply say what they believe these objects are, or how, you know, the story needs to be presented.

For those in an established field, like museum professionals or conservators, it is easy to go with the language and practice that exists before you arrive. Projects like Untold Stories challenge those assumptions and help create a new model.

Sanchita Balachandran: For me, it's really about kind of activating cultural heritage and, 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.

I think if you think of cultural heritage as being something that's preserved by people in, you know, conservation labs only, to me that's really limiting. And it also is untrue because we have millennia of, you know, people caring for their things and their stories and passing this knowledge on, um, 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 this 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 annual conference in Salt Lake City from the 19th to the 23rd of MAY 2020. The title of the event will be PRESERVING CULTURAL LANDSCAPES.

You can learn more about The Untold Stories Project, and watch recordings of past events, at Untold Stories dot live.