Respectful Stewardship

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This content is excerpted from Preventive Conservation: Collection Storage (2019), Elkin and Norris, eds.

Chapter 1: Respectful and Responsible Stewardship: Maintaining and Renewing the Cultural Relevance of Museum Collections

Sanchita Balachandran, The Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, Baltimore, MD
Kelly McHugh, The National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, MD

All objects in collections embody layers of values, meanings and relationships. The museum or collecting institution has historically held the authority to store, classify, interpret, and exhibit the objects it holds, often limiting access to museum professionals and specialists, and thus privileging the museum’s perspective on collections. Despite recent legal and ethical challenges to the sole authority of the collection institution to manage the preservation of cultural heritage, the practical work of democratizing the preservation process remains to be fully instituted. This chapter argues that respectful care of all collections demands a deep and sustained engagement with non-museum stakeholders who have claims to both the tangible and intangible aspects of museum objects. We suggest that preventive conservation methods are but one of a series of approaches towards a more active preservation of the stories and meanings that objects contain. The ultimate aim of preservation is to restore the social and cultural relevance of collections, thus transforming and revitalizing not only collections, but also collecting institutions, stakeholders, and staff.