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Beyond the Surface: Where Cultural Contexts and Scientific Analyses Meet in Museum Conservation of West African Power Association Helmet Masks

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Abstract

How should museum conservators balance respect for objects created within secrecy contexts with concern for technical understanding and preservation? As described in this article, West African power association leaders draw on guarded knowledge to construct masks and other objects from a variety of animal, vegetal, and mineral matter. The works feature accumulations of diverse materials but often enter museum collections with scant or inaccurate records of the specific matter used in the objects' making. Conservators charged with the objects' care confront contradictions stemming from a professional commitment to identify materials intended to remain unknown and to conserve objects never designed to endure in perpetuity as finished forms. In this study, we identify and respond to North American museum conservators' and collections staff's desire for culturally informed guidelines for handling West African power association objects. We combine conservation-based scientific research with art-historical field and archival research to explore possibilities for studying the materially and culturally sensitive objects. We specifically focus on x-radiography and plant fiber identifications of two West African power association helmet masks presently in a museum collection as a case study for ethical decision making during conservation treatments.

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... They have solicited feedback from members of living communities and secret societies who venerate these objects, devised minimally invasive approaches to examining helmet masks, and carried out treatments while expressing ethical values of humility and respect. 7 Yet queries about competing values remain. Tom, who was tasked with examining the helmet mask and extracting a small sample for analysis, commented on cultural and ethical tensions in the process of studying and preserving non-Western ritual objects. ...
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Electronic version is provided courtesy of JSTOR.
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"July 1999." Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Iowa, 1999. Includes bibliographical references (leaves 236-243). Photocopy.
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