The Conservation Office is charged with the care of the National Museum of the American Indian's (NMAI) collections. In addition to having the unique responsibility of hands-on examination and treatment of collection items for exhibition, loan, and study, the office actively engages in conservation training—on and off-site and conducts research projects related to the collections. The office is committed to working in partnership with Native communities in all of these programmatic areas.

The Conservation Office is located at NMAI's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, approximately eight miles southeast of Washington, D.C., and NMAI's Mall museum. This state-of-the-art museum conservation facility includes separate laboratories for working on textiles and objects, a technical library, a photography studio, a scientific analytical lab, and mount-making spaces.

Considered one of the premier facilities in the conservation field for work with Native Americans on ethnographic and archaeological materials, the Conservation Office has a permanent staff of conservators, a mount-maker, and a management support assistant that is regularly augmented by Mellon fellows, interns, and contractors, making for a staff size that ranges from twelve to fourteen people at any one time.

What is a conservator and what does a conservator do?

Conservators are responsible for the long-term preservation of cultural property. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care. A conservator may be trained at a conservation graduate training program or by lengthy apprenticeship with experienced senior colleagues. Conservators combine skills gained through ongoing study and advanced training in art history, science, studio art, and related disciplines to care for and preserve collections. For more information please visit the American Institute for Conservation website.

What is a mountmaker and what does a mountmaker do?

A mountmaker is an exhibit specialist who designs, fabricates and installs the structures (called mounts, brackets or armatures) that safely support collections objects while they are on exhibit or for photography. Working with a variety of conservation-approved metals, plastics and foams to create a custom armature for each object, a mountmaker must find a way to safely support the object within the vision of curators, designers and art directors. Mountmakers work closely with conservators to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each object and to find safe fabrication materials. The goal is to minimize damage to the artifacts both while on display and during the object handling required to make mounts.

In May 2010, the NMAI hosted the 2nd International Mountmaking Forum in Washington, DC. More than 150 mountmakers, conservators, and colleagues from many countries attended presentations, viewed posters, and toured fabrication shops throughout the Smithsonian. View morning and afternoon forum sessions.

Recent Conservation Office activities include conservation research projects; documentation, treatment, and mountmaking of objects on exhibit at the NMAI’s museums in Washington, DC, and New York; interviews with contemporary Native American artists and documentation and archiving processes, analysis of pesticide residues on collection materials; and several collaborative investigations: DNA analysis of hair on Salish blankets; technical study of Andean qeros (ceremonial drinking vessels); identification, properties and use of Native Alaskan cultural material made of gutskin, experimentation with new materials and techniques in mannequin making, and evaluation of materials for mount-making, storage, and exhibition casework.

Professional Conservation Assistance for Private Collections

The American Institute for Conservation answers frequently asked questions such as: