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Fellowship focuses on conservation

SUITLAND, Md. – For Anne Gunnison, there is a great future in plastics.

Gunnison, a Mellon fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is studying how to protect and preserve the plastics used in a large mobile that the museum plans to install this fall titled “Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky)” by artist Brian Jungen of the Dunne-za Nation near Vancouver, British Columbia.

View some of Jungen’s works, including “Crux,” online.

“It’s very colorful,” said Gunnison, who is 29 and from Sacramento, Calif. “He uses a lot of different colors of luggage to make figures. By starting now, we can take steps to conserve the piece upfront.”

A recent graduate with a master’s degree from University College of London’s Institute of Archaeology, Gunnison’s research will be in the growing field of conserving plastics.

A $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation currently funds conservation fellowships and internships. The museum strategically intends these internships to foster a new generation of professionals adept in the innovative ways in which the museum involves Native peoples in the care of materials.

“We introduce them to our methodology so they learn about collaboration with the people who created these objects,” said Gina Ward, NMAI development officer. “We put culture and collaboration on an equal footing with science.”

In 2007, the Mellon Foundation pledged $1.5 million toward an endowment for advanced training in conservation at the museum with the understanding that the museum would raise another $3.5 million. To date, the museum has raised all but $500,000 toward this goal.

The Mellon fellows have hailed from museums in London, Vienna and Auckland. They have worked in museums such as the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mellon Foundation donations to other museums are used to fund conservation, develop departments and other works. It’s unusual for the foundation’s contribution to be used for a training fellowship program, said Marian Kaminitz, the head of conservation at the museum.

Like Gunnison, most leave with a unique specialization after being assigned to an exhibition and being responsible for working with the related indigenous community.

Jungen is a celebrated young sculptor who has worked from such materials as deconstructed Nikes and luggage, and has won international acclaim. He has shown in such events as the Biennale in Sydney, Australia; see that exhibition online. He is working with Gunnison, talking through long-term questions such as how much change is acceptable for his plastic.

Highly flammable collodion and celluloid plastics began appearing in the 1800s. By the 1920s, plastic was everywhere. Over time, older plastics have decayed, cracking and fading, and sometimes damaging other objects next to them. Now conservationists are taking a proactive approach to caring for contemporary plastics.

“Plastics conservation is a growing field,” Gunnison said.

She hopes planning, including perhaps making changes to the environment around the plastic art, will keep Jungen’s mobile from ever needing large-scale repair.

Maybe the Mellon Fellowship works in somewhat the same way, Kaminitz said.

“By training conservators at the start of their careers, the museum can encourage respect for indigenous communities around the world,” she said. “Through the Mellon Fellowship program, we introduce conservators to this methodology and encourage them to fit this approach into their professional work in the future.”