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 staff of the National Museum of African Art facility, which houses a state-of- the-art conservation laboratory, has established and continues to refine conservation procedures unique to the care of African art. Conservation activities are integrated into every aspect of the museum’s operations: acquisitions, exhibitions, education, and overall collections care. These activities include documenting the condition of all collection objects, treating objects, assessing the condition and previous restoration of potential acquisitions, maintaining optimal exhibition/storage conditions for preserving artifacts, executing collections-based research, conducting educational tours of the lab, and preparing interns for formal conservation training.
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.
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)
Ashley F. Jehle
Florida State University, BA (2007); Buffalo State College, MA (2013)
Ivory: Significance and Protection
Ivory is found in all units of the Smithsonian Institution, from the National Museum of Natural History to the National Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian takes its commitment to treasuring these historical collections very seriously, while also actively advocating for more effective measures to protect endangered animal populations. The National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in particular holds many wonderful artworks made of ivory in its collection (The illustrated artworks, photographed by Franko Khoury, are from NMAfA’s collection). As stewards of this collection, the museum and staff value its role in protecting and preserving these beautiful, historical, and important works of art. At the same time, we are aware of the current international demand for ivory, the dangers of the illicit ivory trade, and the current risks to elephant populations. This resource aims to inform the public about ivory—the material, its cultural uses and its importance—as well as the risks facing elephants today and the efforts to help protect this endangered species. It also offers an introduction to ivory identification and artifact preservation.
Samuel H. Kress Fellowship and the Disney-Tishman Collection
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.
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.