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The collections of the Ethnological Museum have 500,000 ethnological and archaeological objects in its holdings. A characteristic of the collections is the variety of materials out of which objects are made: waterproof clothing made of seal intestines, for instance, musical instruments made of armadillos or vesper bats made of gold. It is also the case that an individual object can be comprised of innumerable old and new materials both natural and artificial. Organic and non-organic materials are liable to different alteration and aging processes and require differentiated methods of examination and storage. Over and above this, many objects possess a religious, ritual or non-material significance which reveals itself in specific ideas about handling and storage within the society they originated from. These features, along with precise knowledge about the materials and techniques used, are given particular conservational consideration.
Indications of original use are ascertained and documented. In concrete terms, during conservation this can mean that damage or soiling that was caused during this original use are left alone. A fundamental principle is that preventative conservation such as climate control and adequate storage take priority over intervention to alter an object. Over and above this, as far as possible conservation treatments are only conducted with their reversibility as a primary consideration.
In terms of conservation, the conservators of the Ethnological Museum are organised partly in geographical sections or with regard to particular groups of materials. Advice about conservation, the setting up of display cabinets and the supervision of loans belong to the general responsibilities of the department. The handling of objects contaminated through the use of pesticides, which was previously common, is a particular challenge.
The conservation department of the Ethnological Museum makes available a limited number of places for interns and the supervision of thesis- and master degrees.