Sometimes art conservation is about embracing change. From a traditional, conservative conservator’s standpoint, our profession is about arresting change, or in some cases attempting to revert it. We stabilize to prevent further loss, remove soiling and repair losses to bring the object back to a perceived point of significance. We place importance on the piece as it would be represented in a single moment in time, not as a four dimensional object which is a product of all the moments of its life added up, which accumulate in physical alterations. I don’t inherently have a problem with choosing a point of significance, and most conservators today will tell you it’s about context. Sure, in a design museum, the design is paramount, and aesthetics are emphasized during treatment. In a social history museum, we freeze that object so that it tells the story the curators want to illustrate. But these examples have one thing in common: the object’s life ends when it enters the museum.
Artist Nora Naranjo Morse approaches things differently. Her sculptures outside of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), entitled “Always Becoming,” but affectionately referred to as the Family, were created in 2007, and have been shifting, growing, and melting back into the earth ever since. Made of unfired clay, wood, and stones, much of which has been lovingly collecting in her home of New Mexico and transported to Washington, DC, many of these materials cannot stand up to the yearly heavy rains of the region. Each year, the environment slowly erodes the exterior of these pieces, picking away at the burnished surface, planting seeds in crevices, and weathering the wood poles.
This change is part of the beauty of the work. As the family settles into its home in DC, slowly easing back into the soil, Nora and her daughter and artist Eliza Naranjo Morse return annually for a reunion. They use this time to observe, reflect, and alter the sculptures. Nora allows the pieces to direct her action, observing what aspects must be let go, and what needs to be added. This isn’t conservation in the traditional sense, but rather falls somewhere at the intersection of conservation, installation art, and spiritual practice.
Conservators, friends, and family join together each year for this special event, broadening the idea of family beyond the ring of sculptures, imbuing the process with deeper meaning. The work is performed during regular museum hours, with visitors looking on, speaking with Nora, Eliza, and the staff, and occasionally joining in to help out. Everything flows organically, and we must all be open to change and flow, just as the sculptures embrace their own transformation.
The process is not simply a comment on decay, the destructive force of the natural world, impermanence, or the relentless passage of time. It’s about shifting, adapting, moving, feeling, and becoming. Based on how the pieces have changed, what parts have begun to crack, where an ambitious little sapling has rooted, or events in Nora and Eliza’s personal lives, the Naranjos take this time to work on the family. This year, glistening micaceous earth mixed with flecks of mirror-like mica, a meaningful gift received by one of the artists, was mixed with the rich red clay gathered from a different area of New Mexico. This slip was applied in bands, by the artists, conservation department, and friends to honor, unite, and encircle some of the figures. This was not simple conservation—there was no attempt to halt or reverse change, but rather a continuation of the living artwork, as it passes through time.
This is one of the special projects that sets institutions such as NMAI apart. Traditional Western museological concepts are challenged, and space is made for the voices and practices of indigenous people, so often muted. For me, it was a moment of reflection, beyond just the role of conservation, but also on my own personal relationship with art. It was such a privilege to be around such warm people, and I am so happy that I have now become part of the family.
To watch some videos with the artist filmed during previous visits, click the two playlists below.