That’s how they say “A big success” in Honduras. I learned that last week in Copan, the site where Penn Museum has been involved for over 25 years. I went to Honduras in mid February with other Museum staff members (Dr. Loa Traxler, Bob Thurlow, and Tessa de Alarcon) for two purposes: to see the archaeological artifacts we’d borrowed for our Maya 2012: Lords of Time exhibition home safely; and to present a three-day workshop on conservation to local cultural heritage professionals.
Penn Museum has a long, proud history of capacity building in host countries – providing logistic and material support to our colleagues in less-developed countries where we excavate or study. The Penn projects led by Dr. Robert Sharer and those carried out by other foreign archaeological teams such as Harvard University have cooperated with local heritage preservation specialists to produce an archaeological park and study center which are showplaces of what can be done even with limited resources (see my colleague, Tessa de Alarcon’s recent blog post). But now we were branching out beyond Copan. Part of our loan agreement with the government of Honduras included a clause that we would provide a conservation workshop for staff from Honduras’ Institute of Anthropology and History; Loa, Tessa, and I were there to make that happen. (Bob Thurlow who had had to spend three harrowing days shepherding the return shipment through customs got to come back to work a week earlier)
Twenty-seven heritage specialists (ceramics conservators, architectural preservationists, regional archaeological administrators, collections managers, etc) from all over Honduras spent three days with us in Copan, discussing material preservation (why artifacts deteriorate and how to slow it), field conservation (retrieving fragile artifacts safely from archaeological deposits), and collections management (how to store, study, exhibit, and travel artifacts in the best possible way for their future survival). The Collections Manager from Copan’s Regional Center for Archaeological Investigation (CRIA), Norman Martinez, who helped us make all the arrangements was incredibly excited in advance of the workshop, insisting that we title it ‘the first Workshop on Archaeological Conservation .
Until we started talking to the participants, we hadn’t realized that Penn Museum was blazing a new trail. Many of these life-long workers in cultural heritage had never before had a chance to share information or attend a professional development event like this; several had never before been to Copan, the country’s premier cultural attraction. In addition to powerpoints on the workshop topics (presented in Spanish or (in my case) English with Spanish translation by Tessa de Alarcon), question-and-answer sessions, tours of storage and the archaeological site, we also did a little hands-on work. Tessa and I produced an approximation of the kind of fragile painted stucco remnants that have been found in some Maya sites and let the participants try their hands at excavating them and then using conservation techniques to get them safely out of the ‘ground’ (or, in this case, foil cake pans full of soil). Everyone had fun with this. By the end of the three days we all agreed that we’d learned a lot. Penn Museum has a lot to be proud of; initiatives like this one show that our future can be every bit as impressive as our past. All in all, a great success.