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August 14, 2020

Conservator discusses preservation of culture

By SARAH SCHREIB | April 14, 2016

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COURTESY OF SARAH SCHREIB The destroyed Monumental Arch of Palmyra was mentioned in the talk.

In light of ongoing attacks on cultural landmarks and artifacts in the Middle East, the Program in Museums and Society, with support from the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and the department of Near Eastern Studies, presented a lecture titled “Disaster and Response: The Conservator’s Role in Saving Global Heritage” on Tuesday. Throughout the event, they stressed that conservation of a society’s culture is a matter of human rights.

Lecturer Terry Drayman-Weisser, the former director of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum, recently retired after 45 years at the museum. Her talk outlined both modes of destruction and methods of conservation for cultural artifacts like paintings, tablets, sculptures and architecture.

She first described the various categories of destructive forces: Unpreventable occurrences (earthquakes, flooding), preventable occurrences (fires, leaks) and intentional occurrences (iconoclasm, looting).

In addition to these types of situations, Drayman-Weisser also highlighted the great cultural costs of war. She described the historical instances, such as the looting performed by the Nazis during World War II. During the war, a team of about 400 artists and conservators known as “Monuments Men,” formed under the Allied’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, was sent into Nazi territory to preserve these stolen artifacts. Their story was recently told in a 2014 film The Monuments Men directed by George Clooney.

She then described the first instance of global conservation efforts, which occurred after a flood in Florence in 1966. The conservators who came to assist the conservation efforts of Florence’s priceless artifacts were named “Mud Angels” because of the environment they were working in.

For Drayman-Weisser, the turning point for the field of artifact conservation was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The extensive social media coverage of the disaster made the aftermath more real for the rest of the nation and pushed conservators to create a “disaster plan.”

In 2007, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works created the National Heritage Responders, a group of “rapid responders” who are trained to react in disaster situations.

Drayman-Weisser, an expert in the identification and conservation of ivory, then discussed her work in Iraq following the destruction of ivory artifacts that were hidden by Iraqi museum employees during a period of war. After attempting to train a few Iraqi conservators, Drayman-Weisser realized the need for a more extended curriculum for Iraqi conservationists living and working in the midst. This notion led to the founding of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil, Iraq.

One of the major factors of the institute she stressed was the amount of diversity. Teachers came from all around the world and translators were needed in each classroom. There were Iraqis from different backgrounds and different religions, those who spoke Arabic and those who spoke Kurdish. In her own class, which focused on the conservation of ivory, Drayman-Weisser sought to create open interactions between these different students.

Her final thoughts noted the evolving role of the conservator since the flood in Florence decades ago. She believes that conservators, rather than being seen as mere “rescuers,” have now become consultants and global partners, seeking to create long-term, sustained preservation of cultural artifacts.

Following the main lecture, Drayman-Weisser took questions from the crowd. One audience member asked if she believed there could be conservation institutes like the one in Iraq in other parts of the world like Syria. Drayman-Weisser responded by saying that matters of safety prevented international experts from teaching in highly volatile areas in coming years. However, Syrians and students in other nations could study in the IICAH one day.

The reception included a viewing of Death of History, a Smithsonian exhibit co-curated by Senior Grace Golden.

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