Volume 15, Number 1, Jan. 1993, pp.23-26

Cultural Aesthetics and Conservation in New Mexico

by Landis Smith, Claire Munzenrider, Bettina Raphael, and Keith Bakker

(Editor's note: The following five mini-articles are brief summaries of presentations given by these authors during a panel at the 1992 Annual Meeting of the Western Association for Art Conservation.)

Introduction, by Landis Smith
Cultural Aesthetics and the Conservation of Historic Pueblo Pottery, by Landis Smith
The Role of Hispanic Catholic Communities in Caring for the Interior Contents of Historic Churches in Northern New Mexico, by Claire Munzenrider
Cultural Aesthetics and Southwestern Indian Silver Jewelry, by Bettina Raphael
Understanding New Mexican Spanish Colonial Furniture, by Keith Bakker


by Landis Smith

New Mexico is a unique place for conservators to work; the presence of vital Hispanic and Native American cultures and traditions offer us the opportunity to learn, on an immediate level, about how and why things are made, attitudes toward objects, and how things were--or are--used.

There is a direct relationship between the largely historic, even ancient, museum collections in Santa Fe and the living traditions of Native American and Hispanic artists and communities. The interplay between museums and these communities is increasingly collaborative and ongoing, and along with this we see the role of cultural aesthetics, or ethnoaesthetics, in conservation.

Briefly, cultural aesthetics can be defined as the study of a system of meanings manifested in tangible form (the object) as explained by the artist and society members themselves. The implications, for conservators in museums where the cultural inheritors of the objects we work with have a voice, are potentially far-reaching. We are faced with the question of whose aesthetic--whose meaning--we are presenting, or perhaps imposing, on these objects through conservation treatment.

While museums in New Mexico become increasingly collaborative with Indian and Hispanic communities, the huge market for their traditional and contemporary arts continues to thrive and grow. The market in Santa Fe, shaped by non-Indian and non-Hispanic dealers and collectors, profoundly affects how objects are expected to look, and as conservators we are not immune. The issue of cultural aesthetics has arisen for each of us in the course of our work. We have been made aware, even confronted at some point, by another aesthetic, another system of meanings. For example, old, or so-called "pawn" silver, is bought and sold, and shown in museums, with a patina, or slight tarnish, whereas Southwest Indian people generally wear even heirloom jewelry with a high polish.

Interestingly, when more accurate contemporary or historic aesthetic sensibilities have been incorporated into conservation treatment, controversy ensues. Cases in point are two recent exhibits at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, where Native American curators and consultants, and certain historic information, helped shape a particular aesthetic sense about the silver and ceramic objects to be exhibited. The reactions of some dealers and collectors who saw these objects being presented, hopefully in a more culturally accurate way, were that the silver objects were too clean, while the ceramics had not been cleaned up enough.

As conservators, we need to be aware of the ideas we hold about how something should look, where those ideas came from, whether they're appropriate or accurate.

Cultural Aesthetics and the Conservation of Historic Pueblo Pottery

by Landis Smith

The conservation of late Historic Pueblo (late 19th-early 20th century) pots needs to be reevaluated with an awareness of the issues of cultural aesthetics, and with the intent of cultural accuracy. Pueblo pots can be understood as historic documents, or symbols of culture, and as such, any time a pot is altered, information is lost and another aesthetic imposed.

General knowledge of daily utility, technology, and cultural/spiritual attitudes toward Pueblo pottery (outlined at the WAAC Meeting) is important in beginning to understand the system of meanings and aesthetics they manifest. In addition, we can ask a series of questions to further develop an approach to these objects. First, was the pot either made for sale or commissioned by the museum anthropologist/collector? This would indicate a very different aesthetic than those made for Native use. Were the pots collected while still in active use, or had they already been relegated to back storerooms or even rooftops? If the posts had been used, how had they been used? And especially, how did the pots look while they were in use or at the time of collection? Were there any common post-firing treatments or coatings applied? Were surfaces cleaned by Pueblo people in a certain way, and to what extent? Were pots usually repaired until they could no longer be used? How and at what point were they disposed of?

Answers to such questions are not always easy to ascertain, and at times impossible. Not only is some of the information historically irretrievable, but the answers are different for each pueblo, and they can change from one decade to the next. Cultural aesthetics are specific to place and time; we get into trouble when we talk about THE Native aesthetic, or even THE Pueblo aesthetic.

The once-routine treatment step of cleaning, for instance, becomes problematic in light of these concerns. A whole range of patinas and deposits can be seen on historic Pueblo pottery resulting from use, and they are not well understood. What are we removing when we clean away anything more than museum-accumulated dust or dirt? Neither historic or contemporary ethnographic information, including accounts from present-day potters, nor the sparse scientific analysis that has been done, is systematic or conclusive. The point is, we don't conclusively know what we are losing in terms of either information or aesthetic accuracy by carrying out the irreversible treatment step of cleaning. Is a pot with its patina/surface deposits fully or partially removed culturally accurate? Whose vision of a utilitarian pot is being presented?

As much as has been written about the development of design and form in Historic Pueblo pottery, relatively little work has been done in the area of scientific analysis or ethnoaesthetics as related to use. However, as we continue to approach objects with an awareness of the issue of cultural aesthetics, more information will be revealed. For those of us working with anthropological collections in the Southwest, repatriation is an active issue, and involves more than the return of objects, but also the return of peoples' history, a voice in presenting themselves to the world. Conservation plays a role in this by making treatment decisions within the cultural context of the objects as much as is possible, drawing on as many resources as we can to understand what we are working with.

The Role of Hispanic Catholic Communities in Caring for the Interior Contents of Historic Churches in Northern New Mexico

by Claire Munzenrider

This talk presented the role of Hispanic Catholic communities in caring for the interior contents of the churches in Northern New Mexico. Traditions shape the attitudes in approaching the care and restoration of the religious art objects.

In northern New Mexico, there are more than 300 historic churches. The care of these churches traditionally lies in the hands of the people in the communities that surround the churches. Members of the local church communities serve in the office of majordomo. The majordomos are elected annually and are given the responsibility for the protection and upkeep of the church and care of the contents inside. Everything from vestments to roof leaks are part of the range of responsibilities of the majordomos. Sacristans are generally women assigned to the upkeep and care of the inside of the church including the sacristy, santos, and altar.

For generations, the Hispanic people have cared for their churches and religious art by refurbishing or restoring the saints and altars, on a cyclical basis. Sacristans or other appointed individuals within church communities are known to refurbish their saints and altarscreens. Refurbishing can include sewing costumes and dressing santos for "funciones" or liturgical seasonal events; other care might include cleaning, restoring, or repainting a religious artwork. Traditionally santeros make saints and also restore santos and altarscreens. Some of the finest paintings on altarscreens are images that cover older paintings. The earliest restoration of this kind was done by a santero and dates circa 1826. Today, it is still popular to employ santeros to restore santos and altarscreens.

In the mid-1970s, a restorer was commissioned by a parish to remove a twentieth-century image on an altarscreen and exposed a nineteenth-century painting. Since the early 1980s, conservators have had a less conspicuous but increasing role in advising and assisting communities in the care and repair of their works of art.

With greater attention placed on the churches and an increased market for New Mexican Colonial folk art, more public attention has been placed on these churches and their religious art. Communities are often ambivalent about allowing outsiders to participate in the process of preservation of their churches and santos. Often the way a community approaches decisions on what to do with the religious art in need of restoration depends on a number of things, including (1) the disposition of the community; whether they want to bring in help from the outside, (2) who they contact, (3) how the artist, conservator, or other community contact presents a case of what should be done, or not done, (4) funding. In 1986, Archbishop Robert Sanchez of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe initiated a study to identify his historic churches and develop a philosophy toward their care. The study resulted in the formation of the Commission for the Preservation of Historic New Mexican Churches. This commission brings together many professionals and community peoples, interested in preserving the historic churches in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Archbishop Sanchez and the Commission feel strongly that the responsibility for the care and preservation of the churches should continue to reside in the hands of the communities and try to provide communities needing restoration with professional advice from conservators, archaeologists, structural engineers, architectural conservators, historians, and architects.

Most communities realize the importance of their religious art to their cultural heritage, the art market, and foremost the religious significance to their faith. Many communities are asking questions and giving more outward consideration concerning the care and preservation of these artistic, religious materials. All concerned agree that is important that the customs of use and care of Hispanic religious art remain a vital part of the living culture. The archdiocese and volunteers continue to work with communities as each preservation project is unpredictable and individual.

Cultural Aesthetics and Southwestern Indian Silver Jewelry

by Bettina Raphael

Perhaps in no other area do personal and cultural aesthetics come into play more than with regard to personal attire and adornment. The preservation and presentation of items of jewelry, therefore, necessitates an awareness by conservators to the way these materials would have been worn and cared for by their original owners. During two recent projects involving a condition survey and exhibition of Southwestern Indian silver, an opportunity was provided to gain valuable insight to the cultural and historic context in which these objects are/were made and used. In both projects, collaboration with American Indian consultants was a distinguishing factor. Discussions and demonstrations with Pueblo and Navajo silversmiths provided a working knowledge of the craft and influenced conservation decisions about what was considered "damage," "appropriate" appearance, and the treatment approach.

Southwestern silverworking, despite its relatively short history, has evolved through many stages as the technology has changed, as sources and availability of materials have shifted, and as influences on the Native craft and taste have occurred from within and from outside the culture. All of these factors directly affect how these objects look, age, and respond to conservation treatment. Even the supposedly "simple" process of cleaning and polishing silver jewelry for exhibition requires some knowledge of that history. In this process, it is important to recognize too that the dark "patina" valued by many non-Indian collectors, as a sign of age or as a pedigree for "pawn" silver, would be considered unpolished by Native Americans in the Southwest who, for the most part, polish their jewelry to a high degree.

Silver objects from different periods and tribal origins will often have a different quality of luster and will polish differently even though similar methods are used. The quantity of silver present and the surface finish may vary greatly depending on whether a piece was made by the earliest Navajo smiths of melted-down American coins or the more silver-rich Mexican "pesos" which were used after 1890 and produced a softer, "warmer" metal. In the early 1900s, slugs from federal mints were used and later commercial sheet silver of varying gauges and finishes was available on reservations, affecting both the technology of working the metal and the visual effects of the piece. Similarly, silver that is pounded flat or hammered into molds may vary in its surface appearance and degree of shine from early cast pieces which often have a more irregular and even a textured surface. Mechanical buffing wheels, which came into use in the 1940s, gave a very different surface quality to pieces, compared to the sandpaper and abrasive powders used in early hand polishing methods. From early silversmiths through contemporary craftspeople, silver workers have intentionally darkened or oxidized the silver in recesses or stampwork and surface decoration to enhance contrasts. However, the appearance and durability of such black oxide deposits may vary with the method used to create it, and thus may be more or less vulnerable to insensitive efforts to clean the jewelry today.

Such information on the history, technology, and influences on jewelry making and use in Southwest cultures can help conservators more accurately assess the condition of these objects: (1) by distinguishing characteristics or flaws of manufacture from later damage or deterioration, (2) by revealing links between the quality of tarnish and polish on some pieces and the source of the silver that was used historically and how it was worked, and (3) by reminding that these objects were used by people with distinct intentions and aesthetics.

Understanding New Mexican Spanish Colonial Furniture

by Keith Bakker

In New Mexico, interior furniture has a long history of outdoor use. This particular history of use raises some difficult aesthetic questions regarding the treatment and exhibition of New Mexican furniture.

Early Spanish colonial settlers came to New Mexico expecting to maintain the lifestyle to which they had fast become accustomed in New Spain. They brought trained woodworkers with them, and tools and materials. Despite the present fashion of exhibiting New Mexican Spanish colonial furniture with a dull surface, I doubt very much that they forgot totally about the existence of varnish as soon as they crossed the imaginary line which separates the present-day state of New Mexico from Mexico.

At the time that this territory was settled by Spaniards, furniture was routinely varnished throughout most of the world. We know that New Mexican retablos were varnished. Why not furniture? We do, in fact, find evidence of varnish underneath chair rails and in joint corners of furniture which now appear totally dry.

The Herrean style popularized by the building of the Escorial in Spain had a huge impact on all of New Spain. It produced simple furniture designs, but this furniture was both brown and shiny. Yet today when we look at New Mexican furniture from the same design tradition, we often see dry, uncolored surfaces. Or even worse, we see uncolored surfaces which have been waxed and polished. Mexican chests and tables are usually brown and shiny. New Mexican chests and tables are sometimes brown but usually seem to have lost their gloss.

Benches are even worse. They definitely were used outside, especially later in their histories. Spanish colonial benches were also used outside in Mexico, but they've been maintained and they're usually brown and varnished. Back in New Mexico, most of our benches are weathered and worn. Benches like this have been exhibited in a museum setting representing a New Mexican church. What does this tell people today? It looks like everybody in the community went out in their backyards and dragged their worst bench down to the church so they wouldn't have to stand up for Mass on Sunday.

What has evolved into the so-called Santa Fe style actually has a rather short history. It was consciously invented in the first decades of this century as part of the Pueblo Revival architecture developed by John Gaw Meen and others to foster an artistic revival and promote tourism in an economically depressed state. Furniture was even specifically commissioned and designed to complement this architecture.

The present appearance of New Mexican furniture is not just an abstract matter of scholarly accuracy. The choices we make in the treatment and exhibition of these objects influence popular taste and perception. And popular taste, in turn, influences the way we, as conservators, see the objects we treat.

We have to address these issues of unconscious cultural bias because they reinforce unconscious attitudes of cultural superiority. When we take a dry-looking chair and place it in a period-room setting, we're misrepresenting Hispanic culture. It's no different than taking a rusty "Dinette City" type chair with the foam coming out of its vinyl seat covering, placing it next to a kitchen table, and telling people this is what Hispanic kitchens looked like at the end of the 20th century. It's just slightly insulting, as well as historically inaccurate.

So how should we exhibit this furniture? What do we expect this furniture to represent? What surface treatments are appropriate? Do we show it dry? Good for history of use, but very misleading as far as original intent. And it perpetuates these romantic Southwestern myths.

I suggest we examine this furniture with a decorative arts mentality. We can understand it better if we recognize it as a conscious imitation of more formal Spanish furniture. It may be executed in a somewhat provincial academic style but that doesn't change its function as a social signifier. These aesthetic questions need to be addressed by curators and conservators s working together. We can't make informed treatment decisions if we allow ourselves to remain uninformed.

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