Dark Heritage and a Figurine

IMG_5607Jenna Belle Bittenbender is a first-year MSc student from Florida, USA, ‘the land of sunshine and oranges!’ Her academic background is in Classical Studies, Archaeology, and Conservation. She is deeply interested in the protection of cultural heritage, which eventually led her to pursue an MSc in Conservation for Museums and Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology.

Dark heritage, which refers to heritage that concerns human barbarism, suffering, atrocity, disaster, and cruelty, among others, is an essential part of the study of conservation theory and practice. In this interview, Jenna Belle talks about a figurine that she recently treated of an Indian manservant. It was created in India toward the end of the British Empire’s era of colonial expansion, brought to the UK, and attests to several issues that fall within the realm of dark heritage. (Text by Amanda Imai)

What significance does this figurine have to its owner?
The figurine is a family heirloom. During the period of British colonial occupation of India, the owner’s family member acquired a sizable collection of these figurines, which were passed down to younger generations. The figurine was badly fragmented and had signs or previous repair. I should say that the object has a great deal of sentimental value to the owner.

In dealing with an object that represents part of a colonial narrative, what were some of the inner negotiations that you had with yourself during the decision-making process of this treatment?
I wanted my treatment to represent the object the way it was initially created, but in my reporting, I documented the colonial history of the object. It was really important to me that his colonial origins not be lost or obscured.

Do you think this object can be classified as dark heritage?
As my research has shown me, there are many different definitions and classifications of dark heritage. It does strike me as problematic that the assemblages were collected during a period of colonial control and that they—meaning my figurine and others like them— depict indigenous peoples in what appear to be subservient roles. I can see how this would cause discomfort to many.

Describe your treatment process for the object.
I began by stabilising the supportive wires inside the object. These were loose and caused the figuring to wobble, which in turn caused crumbling to the unbaked clay. So, to begin with, I stabilised those supports. I consolidated loose fragments of the figurine. Then I began cleaning the figurine. I dry-cleaned the surface and removed the adhesive from previous repairs. Then I re-joined the fragments and consolidated the figure’s painted surface. Lastly, I reconstructed a large portion of his legs, which had been completely lost.

What has been the most interesting part of working on this object?
I really enjoyed stabilising the supports of the figure. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make him stand upright. I thought that even after being treated he may forever be relegated to laying in a box. Strengthening his supports and allowing him to stand upright feels like I have restored some dignity to this figure.

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