Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mammoth Yarns

My recent blog talked about the impact of climate change on heritage sites in Greenland, but of course permafrost melting is not limited to this country alone. In Siberia the problem in many ways is even bigger as the land mass is so huge, and it is leading to some interesting threats to historic objects. I wrote a while ago about the trade in rhino horn. The trade in mammoth tusks seems to be much bigger. It is not a new one, as although mammoths died out 10,000 years ago there are instances of mammoth ivory being traded from as early as 1611, and it ended up in the nineteenth century being so commonly found that it was used for piano keys. Estimates put the number of mammoths found over the last 250 years at almost 500,000.

Now however, with the trade in  ivory so tightly controlled under the CITES convention, the search for and trade in mammoth tusks are very much back on the agenda, as they are not subject to CITES.

That in itself is not such a problem, but as one of our papers at the recent International Polar Heritage Committee's conference showed, the searchers tend to look for concentrations of mammoth ivory. With almost 100% probability, any concentration typically means it is an archaeological site, as human activity has led to  a mass accumulation of bones.

And the searchers are not remotely interested in what the sites can tell us. The Siberian Berelekh 'mammoth graveyard' does not exist anymore after the bone bearing deposits were washed out by mammoth ivory hunters, and the Yana site which contains the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Arctic dating to 25,500 - 26,000 BC  has already been seriously damaged by the mammoth hunters. The process followed uses high pressure water pumps to wash out the frozen river bank, including tunnelling into the bank and causing mass collapse, erosion and loss of critical parts of the site. Take a look at these photos of the process in operation - not exactly best archaeological practice!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Conservators en masse

I'm just back from the biggest meeting of conservators that I have ever been to - an impressive 1,250 of them meeting under the auspices of the annual conference of AIC, the American Institute for Conservation, in San Francisco.

A well organised event with a good mix of plenary sessions, specialist working groups, a social program and a bit of fun with the big debate.

The theme of the conference was Conscientious Conservation - Sustainable Choices in Collection Care, which was a great setting for my paper reporting on the survey ICOM-CC and IIC have been undertaking into environmental standards around the world. US conservators get the sustainability need for relaxing the tight temperature and relative humidity standards that museums operate under, and are doing great work in strengthening  the scientific case for safely doing so. The view from the UK, when the push for broadening the standards began a few years ago, was that the US would be reluctant to do so, but ironically it is now elements in the UK that are wanting to stick to the current paradigm along with the German, Austrian and Swiss conservation groups. My view remains that we will reach international consensus on the issue based around agreement on evidence based information, but that evidence is at present too limited, so the work by US  conservators in showing us that what happens in the field is hugely useful.

The main reception was in the stunning de Young Museum, opened in its current building in 2012, which was designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. I can't say I like the exterior with its brutalist facade and prison-like watch tower, but inside it is stunning, including the fab view from the tower. Herzog and de Meuron are the go to architects in the museum space at present having picked up the new contemporary art museum M+ in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District, the world's biggest cultural development site, and recently the new Vancouver Art Gallery.  Coincidentally, they are also the architects for the redevelopment of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, which will be a totally stunning transformation of the site when it proceeds.
The next big moment on the conservation horizon comes in September, when for die hard conservation conference groupies, nirvana arrives with the ICOM Committee for Conservation Conference in Melbourne from 15th - 19th, followed by the IIC Congress in Hong Kong from 22nd - 26th.