Plan of Action for Archive and Paper conservation in museums & archives in South Africa

  • Posted on January 6, 2014

Plan of Action for Archive and Paper conservation in museums and archives in South Africa. Submitted to the Department of Arts and Culture, by Monique Vajifdar in October 2013

As a trained and practising Art Conservator, I would like to raise some issues which concerns me.

In the years since I have been here [I arrived from the UK in 1985],  I have been saddened that while many curators and individuals recognise the importance of preserving the collections they hold,  none of their budgets, or staff complements allow a real effort of conservation. Given urgent national priorities, there has been a lack of attention paid at the highest levels to the preservation of cultural heritage.

As a result, many collections are neglected, or relegated to store rooms and conservation interventions are only implemented when there is a preventable disaster: fire, flood, burst water pipe or handling error.

These are all real examples of work I have been brought in to deal with in National Institutions. All were preventable, had adequate safety measures been put in place.

Conservation of national heritage requires a broad spectrum of skills.

These range from:

•  Observing the most basic handling procedures and noticing degradation [both simple curatorial procedures];
•  Creating environments which are stable and safe for the artefacts as well as useable for humans [since the artefacts require far less light and heat than we do to remain stable];
•  Responding timeously when an unforeseen problem occurs [good disaster plans in place with competent people to implement them]


•  Highly specialised interventions by properly skilled staff in conservation and the political will to make all of the above happen.

It would appear to be such a widespread problem that it is hard to see how to resolve it.

I have been wondering if you have considered the possibility of establishing a Center of Conservation Excellence of national heritage. This could be a similar institution to the Conservation Center in Liverpool, but located in Johannesburg. Alternatively, it is possible to replicate the situation prevalent in many countries where a number of specialised centres of expertise are developed either in museums [LA, London, Paris], libraries [like the Library of Congress in the US] or educational institutions [Schools of Art,  or technical colleges]. For this to be effective, a collegiate professional body would have to develop, open to cooperation and scrutiny.

While many institutions in South Africa do not have the funding to have a functioning conservation studio [many places have space set aside for a conservation studio without the personnel to staff it]  and there is an appalling shortage of qualified personnel in South Africa, such an establishment would permit us to draw on expertise from elsewhere, while transferring the skills to South Africans at the same time.

There has been considerable art patronage in South Africa, and to allow all South Africans to benefit from the important holdings we have, as well as collect new materials to redress the past imbalances, a bold intervention is required.

As well as training specialised staff to take care in an adequately trained manner of specific artefacts-paper, wood, sculptures, metal, photos, furniture, oils, etc., it would allow for a reorientation in existing staff to consider the condition and well-being of the artefact that they look after. It would also allow for education of the public and possible art sponsors.

Monique Vajifdar is an art conservator

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