Master’s degree in Tangible Heritage Conservation supports conservation efforts

Posted on April 15, 2020

In 2018 the University Pretoria of launched a master’s degree in Tangible Heritage Conservation to support heritage conservation efforts of the country and continent.

The degree, an African first, was made possible by the support of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, which has been involved in South African higher education for the past 30 years.

(left to right) Mr Christopher Till (Director Javett-UP Art Centre) , Prof Norman Duncan (UP Vice-Principal: Academic ), Prof Vasu Reddy (Dean: Faculty of Humanities) , Ms Alison Gilchrest (AWMF: Program Officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage), Dr Mariët Westermann (AWMF: Executive Vice President for Programs and Research), Prof Cheryl de la Rey (UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal) and Dr Saleem Badat (AWMF: Program Director: International Higher Education and Strategic Projects)

The programme was developed in 2016 and the first cohort of students entered the programme in 2019. It is based in the School of Arts, which offers training in Tangible Heritage Conservation. The School of Arts is located in the Faculty of Humanities.

Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Vasu Reddy, explained the concept of Tangible Heritage as: “That which is concrete and can be touched, felt or heard. It is as much about art, language and literature, as it is about archival manuscripts, ancient artefacts, oral histories, the built environment, the land, the marine environment… all of this has something to tell us about the diversity of our entangled heritage. The diversity is what makes us human,” he said. 

Prof Reddy explained that protecting the country and the continent’s heritage is the primary motivating factor, which is why the degree is important.

“Central here is the urgency to preserve all the cultural artefacts of South Africa and Africa. Sites and works of enormous cultural and heritage significance have been or are being destroyed, have disappeared, or are deteriorating through vandalism, climatic influences, a lack of maintenance and natural ageing.

“We need the requisite skills and expertise to protect, restore, repair, conserve and preserve them, to build conservation capacity in our museums, libraries, archives, and other cultural entities, and to contribute to building and protecting our heritage, no matter how contested it might be, “ Prof. Reddy said.

Conservator and lecturer in Tangible Heritage Conservation and Museum Studies, Isabelle McGinn, further explained that the urgency also comes from there not being enough qualified individuals for the job.

“The degree will address a lack or shortage of skills in the sector as most current practitioners face retirement in next five to 10 years and [outside of this degree] there is no training offered locally,” McGinn said.

While the degree will solve some problems relating to heritage conservation, there are still some issues that the sector faces, that can be addressed by multi-pronged solutions.

“Some of the issues the sector faces include a lack of adequate government support and allocation of funds towards heritage conservation, both in and out of museums; [and] recognition of the special skills and knowledge required to do the work which is currently seen as nothing more than a technical post. Accreditation and recognition of qualifications is also an important challenge,” McGinn said.

The solutions to these problems, according to McGinn, will come from a change of attitude and an effort being made by all sectors of society to fight for our collective heritage.

“Advocacy for what we do, by conservators, and [the] realisation that our heritage is deteriorating – by all of us – is important. We also all need to realise that inappropriately trained personnel can cause irreparable damage to our heritage, and that will lead to us losing this finite resource,” she said.

The degree programme will equip prospective students with analytical skills such as materials analysis, understanding degradation processes of heritage 'objects' and materials, and understanding how to mitigate these risks through preventive conservation.

The Javett-UP, the latest addition to UP’s art and heritage catalogue, houses the conservation laboratory. This is where students can do their practical restoration exercises, and visitors can see conservators at work, plus make the connection between the works, and the conservator’s scientific and artistic skills.

- Author Masego Panyane
Published by Xolani Mathibela

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