The conservation professional is dedicated to the long-term preservation of art and other cultural property and is responsible for the examination, documentation, preventative care, treatment, and restoration of these materials. For more information about the profession, contact the American Institute for Conservation (AIC).
The National Museum of African Art houses a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory and includes a complete x-radiography system with digital imaging. This equipment enhances the museum’s ability to thoroughly examine objects for evidence of manufacturing techniques and previous restorations.
The department often collaborates with the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute and other SI bureaus to analyze African art materials, investigate manufacturing processes and resolve treatment problems. In turn, the department serves as a national and international authority on the conservation of African art.
Opportunities for Internships and Fellowships
Caring for your Collections
Stephen P. Mellor
Associate Director for Collections and Facilities and Chief Conservator
George Washington University, BA (1976); Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware Art Conservation program, MS (1981)
Dana L. Moffett
University of Kansas, BA (1985); Institute of Archaeology, University College, University of London, BSc (Hons, 1989); Univeristy of Denver, MA (1990)
Samuel H. Kress Fellows, Alexis North and Brittany Dolph Dineen have been working on the Disney-Tishman collection, which was never assessed in-depth by conservators prior to its accession to the Museum in 2005. Most of the objects had only old rudimentary condition notes associated with them and therefore needed to pass through the conservation lab for examination, analysis, documentation, and treatment before installation in the galleries. The Kress Fellows work involves a variety of conservation issues and curatorial queries, such as:
- the analysis and treatment of friable and matte pigment surfaces;
- the identification and reversal of old restorations;
- the consolidation and structural stabilization of insect damaged woods;
- the identification of materials (particularly wood types and encrustation materials);
- the reassessment of cultural attributions.
Read more about the Disney-Tishman collection.
With funding from a Smithsonian’s Scholarly Studies Award, Fellow Rebecca Summerour is lending her textile conservator’s eye to a research project detailing the diverse materials incorporated into Yoruba Egungun masquerade ensembles. The research will build on other studies in the field that suggest how researching fabrics can reveal contextual and geographic information (i.e., provenance) in addition to aiding in understanding the diffusion of the textiles used in these ensembles. Her technical analysis will provide a comparative look at the textiles included in a number of Egungun with the goal of furthering understanding of the aesthetics, provenance, chronology and cultural standards for the selection of textiles in this dynamic and innovative art form. Ms. Summerour’s work includes conducting fiber and weave analysis as well as documenting the ensembles with photomicrography, digital photography and x-radiography.
Read more about Egungun masquerades
In 2003, six icons from the museum’s collection underwent technical analysis and conservation treatment. This yearlong study is one of the first to scientifically identify and document the materials used to paint Ethiopian icons.
The incessant international demand for ivory—a material that is prized across world cultures from ancient times to the present day—has dangerously diminished elephant populations in Africa. In an effort to educate the general public, art collectors, and specialists, this paper includes information on how to identify ivory and its substitutes, descriptions of the laws and regulations of its trade, and a selected bibliography.
Art and artifacts from Africa are sometimes comprised of materials of unknown origin, as was the case with the nkisi mbumba—medicine skull—in the Artful Animals exhibition.
Opportunities for Internships and Fellowships
Ten-week or longer internships are offered year around for students who have a demonstrable interest in pursuing a graduate degree in conservation. Initial inquiries should be made to the Conservation Department (email@example.com); official applications are filed through the Smithsonian’s SOLAA system.
Smithsonian Institution Postgraduate Fellowship in Conservation
The Smithsonian offers nine- to twelve-month fellowships to graduates of masters programs in art and archaeological conservation or the equivalent or conservation scientists, including those at the postdoctoral level, who wish to conduct research and gain further training in Smithsonian conservation laboratories for conservation of objects in museum collections.
Interested applicants should contact the NMAfA Conservation Department (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss collection-based research projects, which for the 2016-2017 year could include topics such as the dating wood objects, the technical analysis of metal objects, pigment identification, or other research interests of the candidate. Final applications to the Office of Fellowships and Internships must be received by December 1, 2015. More information about opportunities at African Art can be found here.
Caring for Your Collections
1:30 – 4 p.m., third Thursday of the last month of the quarter
Registration required; call Frank Esposito at 202.633.4633
Conservators advise the public on the proper care of their collections. Limit two objects per visit; preference is extended to first-time participants. Please register well in advance of the date you wish to attend as these clinics are limited in terms of participants and they tend to fill up quickly.