Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art of high cultural value is actively collected by museums and galleries (Murphy, 2001). In acquiring this material institutions are responsible for its conservation and exhibition; a balance involving significant risk of damage and decay to objects (Raphael, 2005). This report seeks to explore risk-mitigating practices to enable this balance. Exhibitions can expose objects to environmental, physical, chemical and biological damage (ICON, 2006). To enable ongoing preservation and use, safe handling and display practices must be adopted (Raphael, 2005). This paper identifies relevant, industry accepted handling and display practices in an effort to ensure continued care and access to contemporary and heritage Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections.
The significance of art to Indigenous culture is undeniable (Mellor, 2001; Mohamed, 2015).
The arts have always been at the centre of our cultures. For more than 60,000 years art has connected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to heritage, land and spirituality, and to the past, present and future (Mohamed, 2015 p.5).
Indigenous visual art takes many forms, including painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, weaving, textiles, wood carving, ceramics, installation and new media, amoung others, and reveals the diversity of Indigenous culture, language groups, and geographies (Australian Government, 2015). Most Australian galleries, libraries, and museums hold Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in their collections (Murphy, 2001; Museum Victoria, 2016). In some cases, artworks are composed of inorganic and organic materials, including feathers, dyed fibres, painted bark, carved wood, and natural waxes and resins; amoung many others. Indigenous art requires specific conservation considerations to avoid physical damage and chemical deterioration (Heritage Collections Council, 1998c).
Exhibition, conservation, and risk
Environmental, physical, chemical, and biological sources can pose risk of damage and decay to collections (ICON, 2006). Exhibitions can further increase this risk (Raphael, 2005). Exhibitions necessitate object handling and movement, which can expose numerous and additional hazards including environmental change, theft, and physical damage through contact with human hands, shock, vibration, and abrasion (Brysbaert and Berry, 2015; Ashley-Smith, 1995). These risks can result in significant, and sometimes irreversible damage to invaluable objects.
Preservation of collections is a fundamental responsibility of museums and galleries (ICOM, 2006; ACT Museums & Galleries et al., 2014; Heritage Collections Council, 1998a). Enabling research, scholarship, engagement, and learning, collections are significant community resources held in perpetuity for all (Glaister, 2005). In fulfilling institutional mission and collective responsibility, Museums and Galleries are obliged to take active steps to reduce risk to collections. Equally, Museums and Galleries are responsible for the public presentation of their collections through exhibitions, public programs, and opportunities for learning (Australian Government, 2013; Wilkinson, 2005; Museums Australia, 2005; ACT Museums & Galleries et al., 2014). This responsibility is furthered in Collections for the Future, accusing museums of falling short of their responsibility to both the object and the public if collections are unused (Glaister, 2005).
Tasked with responsibilities often understood at odds, Museums and Galleries must negotiate a balance between reducing risk to collections and enabling access (Raphael, 2005; Ashley-Smith, 1995; Vaccaro, 1996). ‘The exhibition is, in fact, a compromise between the reason that you acquire and save each object and those conditions that will preserve your objects’ (Raphael, 2005 p.245). While inherent risks are involved in the display of fragile objects, steps to mitigate hazards and reduce risk can be implemented (Ashley-Smith, 1995). This report looks to describe ways to minimise risk involved with the handling and display of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections. It acts to enable both exhibition and conservation. Handling and display expose the most significant risk to objects involved in the exhibition. This report suggests and encourages an informed approach to installation and display, actively seeking to reduce potential risk and hazards.
Handling and display of cultural material necessitates consideration and respect for Indigenous peoples and culture (Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, 2016; Davidson et al., 2014). To provide appropriate care for an object, ‘we need to understand the cultural context from which it comes, as well as its social, historical, intellectual, and aesthetic value’ (Museum Victoria, 2016). Intrinsic to many cultural materials and essential to their overall preservation are intangible elements (Davidson et al., 2014). In this way, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be consulted in decisions affecting conservation, research, display or use cultural heritage collections (Ibid; Museums Australia, 2005; Mellor, 2001). This is particularly significant with relation to culturally sensitive or sacred material, which by its nature, may be restricted from general display (Museums Australia, 2005; Museum Victoria 2016).
The following suggests practical ways to handle objects during periods of exhibition installation and over short distances.
· Objects should be handled as little as possible (ICON, 2006).
· Before handling objects, care should be taken to prepare the object, movement path, and destination location (Heritage Collections Council, 1998e). This planning will include checking for a clear pathway and ensuring the destination location is clean, safe, and ready to receive the object (Ibid; Miles, 2011). The assistance of a second (or more) person may be required if access to exhibition or storage spaces requires use of a security pass or key. Equipment; such as a trolley or pallet-jack may also be of use in handling larger or heavy objects (Miles, 2011). In this circumstance, equipment should be clean and lined with an acid-free support.
· Jewellery, loose clothing, and keys should be restrained to prevent abrasions to the object.
· Objects should be checked for any loose items or decorations prior to handling (Heritage Collections Council, 1998e). Care should be taken to avoid handling these areas.
· Objects should be handled using clean gloves to reduce the transfer of sweat, oil, and dirt from hands (Heritage Collections Council 1998c). Latex or vinyl gloves should be used in preference to cotton as pigment and fibre can be unintentionally collected by cotton gloves (ICON, 2006).
· Objects should be fully supported when handling (Heritage Collections Council, 1998e). If practical, move objects with their support, handling only the support (Ibid). When possible objects should be moved while inside their crate or protective housing to ensure support and protection. Small objects may be best moved in a tray or box lined with an acid-free material, such as tyvek, or tissue (ICON, 2006).
· If an object is to be handled directly, contact should be made with areas of strength (ICON, 2006). Avoid handling objects using handles on the object as these can be areas of weakness (Ibid). Feathers are considered extremely fragile and should not be handled unless necessary (Heritage Collections Council, 1998e). In the case they must be handled it is advisable to handle the rashis; the feather vein, as this is the strongest part (Ibid). In the case an object is composed of multiple materials, handling should involve the strongest or most stable material (Ibid). Areas of paint or carved decoration should be avoided in handling (Ibid). This is of particular relevance to objects; most often bark, painted with ochre; which can be particularly susceptible to flaking (AICCM, 2016).
· Large, heavy, or irregularly shaped objects may require handling by two or more people and equipment (Heritage Collections Council, 1998e). If a trolley is required to move multiple objects it is advisable to use separation battens or foam padding between objects for protection and to absorb shock. (Ibid)
Reducing hazards exposed to objects on display can minimise damage and decay. The following outlines steps to mitigate this risk.
· Ideal environmental conditions should be set to 20°C +/- 2°C temperature and 50% +/- 5% humidity range (Museums and Gallery Services Queensland, 2014). If this is unachievable a stable environment will reduce the likelihood of damage and decay (Ibid). Bark paintings can split, dry out, warp, and crack if stable temperature and humidity is not maintained (Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, 2016; Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, 2007; Queensland Museum, 2016). Pigment loss can result from these structural changes and effect surface composition (AICCM, 2016). High humidity can also result in mould and insect infestation (Ibid; Tworek-Matuszkiewicz, 2007). Wood-boring insects and silverfish thrive in such environments, and can damage organic and animal-based materials (AICCM, 2016).
· Light and UV exposure should be restricted and determined according to exhibition and object needs. Natural pigments, fibre, feathers, and unpainted wooden carvings can fade and discolour on account of excessive light levels (Lyall, 1980; Thomson, 2011).
· Display areas should be kept clean to reduce dust and pollutants, which can promote decay (AICCM, 2016).
· Insects and bacteria can attack organic material, causing staining and structural damage (Ibid; ICON, 2006). Undertaking routine inspections and adhering to pest management procedures will reduce potential damage (Heritage Collections Council, 1998d).
· A vitrine, display case, or frame can further protect vulnerable objects against dust, pollution, theft, and enable a tailored microclimate (Ibid). Silica gel can help to control relative humidity inside display cases and can be pre-conditioned to achieve a specific level (Ibid). Cases or frames composed of chipboard or unsealed woods can emit acidic or organic vapours (Ibid; Lee and Thickett, 2011). Chemically stable materials including enameled metal and glass should be utilised (Ibid).
· Exhibition furniture, including plinths and risers can also be used to reduce risk and enhance display qualities. Plinths can create a visual boundary and delineate space while also acting to deter visitor contact with objects. Objects should be placed at a distance of from the dimensions of the plinth and farther than arms reach, to deter contact. All exhibition furniture should be levelled.
· Adequate object support should be used to prevent falling (ICON, 2006). In some circumstances Museum Wax can be used to reduce this likelihood. Supports should prevent an object becoming distorted under its own weight (Ibid). Bark requires specific and customised support systems to enable movement and prevent warping (Macgregor, 2010). Flattening bark paintings should be avoided (AICCM, 2016).
· The most sensitive or fragile objects should be displayed in an internal room, against internal walls as external walls can be influenced by outside temperature and humidity (Heritage Collections Council, 1998d). In this way, planning exhibition layout with consideration to conservation requirements can reduce risk.
With reference to museum and gallery exhibition and conservation responsibilities, this essay has sought to document safe handling and display practices for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material. Appropriate care and display should be supported by awareness, consideration and consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Exhibitions require object handling and display, which can expose objects to environmental, physical, chemical and biological damage. Precautions, planning, and preparation can reduce the likelihood of this risk (Miles, 2011). Safe handling involves preparing the object, movement path, and destination location. Multiple people may be required to assist directly or enable access. Surgical gloves are recommended for handling objects as fibres can adhere to cotton gloves. Attempts should also be made to handle an objects support, in preference to the object itself. If this is impossible or impractical, an object should be handled in areas of strength. Areas of painted or carved decoration should be avoided to reduce risk of physical damage. The display environment may also expose an object to preventable risk. Temperature and relative humidity should be stabilised and checked regularly, while UV and light exposure should be restricted. The exhibition space should be kept clean and free of dust, pollutants and insects in line with the pest management strategy. Adequate supports tailored to the object can also reduce risk. Utilising display cases and plinths will further protect against environmental fluctuations, theft, dust and contaminants. Likewise, an exhibition layout sensitive to conservation considerations can minimise hazards. In this way exhibition responsibilities can be fulfilled with minimum damage to collections and access provided to important public collections.
 Within the report, Glaister employs the term ‘unused’ in relation to undisplayed, under-researched and poorly understood objects (2005).
 An objects degree of sensitivity may vary between communities or language groups and may also change over time (Museums Australia, 2005).
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