Celebrating Heritage Month

Posted on September 11, 2023

Heritage Month is an opportunity to recognise and honour the enormous cultural diversity in our country. Hannes Elsenbroek, museum art conservator assistant at UP Museums, tells us more about his role and the importance of heritage.

Heritage Day, which is observed annually on 24 September, recognises South Africa’s cultural diversity. Hannes Elsenbroek, museum art conservator assistant at the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums, chats about his role in preserving heritage and unpacks its importance.

What does an art conservator do?

An art conservator is a professional who is engaged in any action that is geared towards the long-term preservation of artistic or cultural objects for the benefit of both current and future generations. Such actions can vary from documentation, examination and preventative treatment strategies to specialised cleaning, restoration and reconstruction.

How does one become an art conservator?

Museum art conservation is a highly specialised field that requires particular skill sets such as scientific material knowledge, sensitive artistic manual skills, knowledge of art and cultural history, the ability to conduct research, and knowledge of conservation theory and ethics. As such, a master’s degree in the museum field is required to initiate one’s journey towards becoming a conservator. UP offers a Master of Social Sciences Heritage and Cultural Sciences Heritage Conservation programme, the only one of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Based on personal experience, I would say that a degree qualification alone is not entirely sufficient to be a conservation practitioner, as much of the required skill sets can be developed only through practical, on-site work experience. Prior to my employment, I spent a year as a conservation intern at UP Museums, learning and honing my practical skills under the guidance of the museums’ art conservator Sandra Markgraaf. The time spent under her mentorship proved invaluable to my ongoing development in this field and to my current position as her professional assistant.

What is the difference between an art restorer and an art conservator?

An art restorer aims to bring a damaged or neglected artwork back to the condition that the artist or creator of the artwork intended it to be in. An art conservator, on the other hand, aims to preserve an artwork while maintaining important aspects of its history, because in some cases, damage or alterations to the original artwork may carry immense historical significance.

What is museum conservation?

Conservation within a museum setting encompasses continual and responsible care towards the longevity of a museum’s collection. Museum conservation operates according to strict codes of ethics as outlined by the International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC). These codes of ethics guide the conservator to ensure that the integrity, authenticity and ultimately the value of museum collections are upheld. As such, UP Museums staff are leaders in and advocates for conservation as we are members of the ICOM-CC.

What is the role of conservation in a university museum?

To maintain the university’s art collection to ensure its endurance so that it may serve its community. Conserving a university’s collection includes consistently monitoring the display and storage conditions of collections as well as remedial and preventative treatments. UP Museums act as the custodian of thousands of the University’s artworks and heritage objects, which form an integral part of research, engagement and interpretation, not only for UP students and staff but also for the general public.

Why is heritage important in today’s context?

Heritage plays a significant role in our daily lives because it forms an integral part in shaping both individual and collective identity. Heritage in the form of art or other cultural objects are manifest aspects of the narratives we piece together to navigate the present and in doing so, shape our futures. Heritage objects also act as valuable repositories of knowledge and primary testaments to history, reminding us where we come from and potentially inspiring the future paths we take.

- Author Jimmy Masombuka

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