Heritage Conservation as Cultural Work: Art, Authenticity, and Activism in Hawai'i


John Nicholas Brown Center, Library 357 Benefit Street

Glenn Wharton, research scholar of museum studies at New York University

This talk demonstrates material heritage conservation as a tool for excavating and creating public memory. Through its interventions in objects and sites that people care about, the practice of heritage conservation is well situated to do more than preserve material culture from the past. In the social life of things, the moment of their conservation is an opportunity to reconsider their agency and symbolic value. This "conservation moment" has potential to stimulate public dialog on how the past is remembered. It is also well located for analyzing relationships with the material past. Recent currents in anthropology and material culture theory provide a framework for this wider focus of conservation. The case study incorporates ethnography and public participation in conserving the King Kamehameha I sculpture on the northwest tip of the Island of Hawaii. Community activities and extended public discussion engaged wide interest in its conservation. They also led to critical reflection on representing the Hawaiian past through conservation.