Anthropology Collections Conservation

The primary function of the Anthropology Collection Conservation team is to ensure the preservation of the collection for future generations. 

The catalog of the Anthropology Division includes more than half a million entries representing the material culture of the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific Islands. The conservators' main day-to-day activities encompass preventive care, examination, documentation, treatment, research, education, and outreach. This includes maintenance of the permanent exhibits and support of the collections management team in caring for collections in storage and on display. Annually, a select number of objects receive full conservation treatment, generally in preparation for exhibition at the museum or loan to other institutions.

Historically the “preservation” of cultural material in museums was focused primarily on understanding and preventing (or slowing) the deterioration of the physical materials from which objects are made. Increasingly it is recognized that ethical and appropriate custodianship of cultural collections, especially those originating from indigenous communities, must encompass more inclusive approaches to care and preservation that consider the intangible aspects of collection items and the critical importance of seeking out and respecting the perspectives, expertise, and guidance of descendant communities. The conservators at AMNH entrusted with the care of the collections in the Anthropology Division recognize their responsibility to assure access to collections and pursue opportunities for consultation and collaboration. They continually strive to listen, adapt, and evolve their approaches to collection care.

The conservation lab in the Anthropology Division has a long history. There were decades of restorers and a few contract conservators before 1985, when the first graduate-trained conservator, Judith Levinson (Director of Conservation Emeritus) was added to the permanent staff, establishing consistent ongoing care of collections guided by a scientific approach, and professional standards and ethics. Since then, more than 100 conservators and interns have worked and trained in the lab, which continues an active program of education and training to this day.

Explore examples of collaborative projects in the Anthropology division, some of which involved or were led by conservation staff.

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Press Release Northwest Coast Hall Opens May 13 New exhibits developed with Indigenous communities present the creativity and history of Pacific Northwest living cultures. May 5, 2022 Video Northwest Coast Basketry – Woven Traditions Discover how a Suquamish master basket weaver is helping conservators care for the Northwest Coast collection. Blog Post Historic Chief’s Chest On View in Haida Gwaii The Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay will feature a carved wooden chest from the Museum’s collection. October 26, 2017 Article Arthur Shaughnessy House Post Carvings Reinstalled In February 2012 four carved and painted house posts were reinstalled near the entrance of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. Video Guts and Glory of Object Conservation Walrus intestines, birch bark, and reindeer hide are all in a day’s work when preserving Siberian collections. Video Microscope Monday April 4, 2018. In this video, Samantha Alderson, Conservator in the Anthropology Division, shows how microscopes help conservators... Blog Post Zapotec Urn Sheds Light on Ancient People of Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley A clay funerary urn offers clues to the ancient Zapotec people of Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley and other glimpses into early Mesoamerica. October 10, 2018 Blog Post Lab Confidential: Conserve and Protect Each of the 41 intriguing images in Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies tells a fascinating story about... January 30, 2012 Blog Post Conservation of Siberian Collections Division of Anthropology conservators undertake a two-year project to stabilize and rehouse portions of the Museum’s Siberian collections. July 14, 2015