Care and conservation of ethnographic objects

Ethnographic objects are artefacts which have been collected from indigenous communities around the world. They are made from both organic materials - those derived from plants and animals - and inorganic substances like metals, glass and mineral pigments; organic and inorganic are often found in combination. These might be local and traditional materials, or may have been obtained through trade; they might well include modern materials such as plastics.

Many materials found in ethnographic objects - such as smoke-tanned hide, sinew or mica - may be unfamiliar to you as owner and collector. These objects frequently have little associated documentation about how they were made, used or collected so it is especially important to ensure that any information contained within the object is preserved. Objects may also incorporate human remains, such as teeth, bones or hair, and this can raise ethical issues, as can the ritual or sacred associations of an object.

  • A conservator specialising in ethnographic objects has developed skills in understanding the often very complex material technology of these artefacts. Conservators work with the objective of preserving as much evidence of an object’s life history as possible – to allow it to be understood and interpreted in the wider cultural context.

Causes of damage – things to look out for

Ethnographic objects are susceptible to damage and deterioration from environmental, physical, chemical and biological sources. The combination of materials present in a single object can often accelerate chemical deterioration, for example deteriorating glass beads on leather, or corrosion products from metals on wood. Look out for:

  • Metal corroding, glass breaking down and fracturing or staining surfaces, embrittlement of plant materials coloured with iron-rich muds or dyes. All these indicate that conditions are too damp.
  • Pest damage from rodents, insects (e.g. carpet beetle larvae ‘woolly bears’, clothes moth, silver fish, wood-boring insects) or moulds and bacteria. These can cause both structural and surface damage as well as staining, and are also encouraged by high relative humidity levels.
  • Splits in wood and plant materials, and stiffening or warping of previously flexible materials such as hide, skin, textile, feathers or plant-based substances. If humidity levels are allowed to fluctuate, this can lead to materials becoming embrittled and fragmentary.
  • Painted surfaces or coatings deteriorating, flaking or softening; layered structures such as barkcloth may delaminate.
  • Structural damage due to lack of appropriate mounts or physical support.

What is dirt?

You may be tempted to “clean” a dirty-looking ethnographic object, as you would a domestic artefact. Ask yourself first – what exactly is it that will be removed in the cleaning process? It is important to distinguish between the different types of soiling present on an object; some deposits may be from the original setting, or may derive from the original use of the object: for example smoke, food residues or ritually-applied substances. This “dirt” is actually unique and irreplaceable information about your object’s history. There may well be more recent soiling accumulated since the object was collected which can be safely removed - but can you really distinguish these two?

  • An ethnographic conservator is trained to differentiate the different kinds of accretion. He or she can advise you on what cleaning is possible and how best to preserve all the information in your object or collection.

What can you do to prolong the life or your object or collection?

Improve the environment

  • These objects need to be stored and displayed where they are protected from extremes of heat, cold, dampness and dryness and from high light levels. Keep them where they are not subjected to fluctuations of humidity and temperature.
  • Ultra violet radiation (from daylight) is particularly damaging, causing discolouration and embrittlement of many materials. The effect is cumulative, so keep exposure low.
  • As ethnographic objects are often made from a combination of materials, they require a stable humidity and temperature environment. Daily changes in conditions such as those produced by domestic central heating are the most damaging to these materials – it is better to keep objects in areas with constant low-level heating or no heating at all.
  • Objects should be kept away from external walls, and away from direct sources of heat and light.

Document your collection

  • You can document the object using photographs, descriptions and diagrams to provide a record and keep track of its condition and changes over time. Where possible this should include the known history of the artefact. The record will be important to a conservator devising a treatment plan and it is also useful for insurance purposes.
  • A conservator will be able to advise on the cultural context of the object and will provide thorough documentation about its condition and any treatment undertaken.

Upgrade display and storage methods and materials

  • Each object should have adequate physical support, while stored or displayed, to ensure it is not at risk of falling or being knocked over, or of being damaged under its own weight, for example by becoming distorted.
  • Use storage and display materials that are chemically stable and do not emit acidic or organic vapours. Good materials to use are acid-free tissue and boxes, inert polyethylene foam and scoured cotton textiles.
  • Wherever possible, each object should be protected from dust using an acid-free box or a dust cover (e.g. of ‘Tyvek’ or unbleached, scoured calico) that will not abrade or damage the surface.
  • Good physical support is important when handling the object. Objects should be handled minimally and carefully. Assess areas of possible weakness before lifting and avoid lifting protruding parts such as handles, supporting the weight fully from underneath. Ideally, wear vinyl or latex gloves to ensure that nothing catches the surface. Trays or boxes should be used where appropriate to move objects.
  • You can ask a conservator to make a mount for an unstable object from appropriate materials; this will provide proper physical support.

Consulting a conservator

A conservator trained and specialised in the conservation of ethnographic material will demonstrate an understanding of the factors that have contributed to the current condition of your object or collection, such as materials, manufacturing techniques, former use, alterations, past environments, earlier repairs or treatments as well as storage and display conditions. They can:

  • Provide advice on how to best care for your object
  • Give you an assessment of the condition it is in and whether further conservation is necessary
  • Assess the extent of conservation required and achieve the best compromise possible between the conflicting preservation requirements of the different component materials.

The treatments that the conservator might undertake include:

  • Cleaning to reduce surface and ingrained soiling deposited after collection.
  • Stabilisation of active deterioration such as insect, mould or bacteria infestations, corrosion, chemical deterioration e.g. of dark-coloured plant materials, flaking paint or coatings.
  • Reshape distortions, reduce creasing and carry out structural repairs to breaks, splits and areas of loss.

Useful sources

Rose, C.L., 1992. Preserving Ethnographic Objects. In: K. Bachmann, ed. Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Doyal,S., Murray, C. and Shelley, L., 2011. World cultures collections. In: The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping - the care of collections in historic houses open to the public. Elsevier, 544-556.

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© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2006.

This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge use of the MGC publication 'Ours for Keeps' in the preparation of this text. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.

The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at