The collections of the Ethnologisches Museum comprise some 500,000 ethnological and archaeological objects. Characteristic of the collection is the huge variety of materials from which its objects were produced – from waterproof garments made of fish skin and seal intestine, to musical instruments made out of armadillos and leaf-nosed bats in gold. A single object can incorporate numerous old and even new materials of both natural and artificial origins. Organic and inorganic materials change and age differently and thus require different techniques and methods of analysis to preserve them.
Many objects also have religious, ritualistic or spiritual meanings whose special significance in the societies from which they come can be determined by how they were once used. Along with the precise analysis of materials and techniques, such aspects are given special consideration when deciding how these objects should be best conserved. Indications of their original use are preserved and documented. This can mean that damage or soiling caused by the original use of an object is left as is. In principle, the priority of preventive conservation, such as climate control and appropriate storage, is to avoid intervention. Furthermore, any restorative measure that is undertaken must be reversible whenever possible.
The conservators at the Ethnologisches Museum care for objects from specific geographic regions or are assigned to particular materials. Shared tasks include consulting on the set up of exhibitions and the conservation of loans. One challenge facing the museum is the treatment of objects that have been contaminated due to the earlier widespread use of pesticides.