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"The Curators Eye" Tribal Art Series Interview

Featuring Silvia Schmedding-Van De Goorberg

I feel very honoured to present our first interviewee in our new curator/conservator series. Silvia Schmedding-Van De Goorberg is a wonderfully talented, knowledgeable, and well-known figurehead in the world of Oceanic art and artefact conservation. Silvia works with museum collections and private collectors around the world in hope to preserve history, not only for New Guinea Tribal Art, Oceanic Tribal Art and African Tribal Art but for all cultures around the world. Her passion for New Guinea and Oceanic Tribal Art is awe inspiring and very close to my own heart. Silvia is an all-round wonderful individual to know and speak with.

She needs no further introduction, so please enjoy my interview with the gracious Silvia Schmedding-Van De Goorberg who works as a conservator at the Tropenmuseum Ethnographic Museum located in Amsterdam.


WC - Can you tell us how your work as a museum curator/conservator came about?

SS - At the age of 29 I reconsidered my career. I had heard about the profession of conservator, which I found to be a beautiful combination of my former study and general interest in history and my character skills, as a specialist detailer. The task of a conservator is to conserve objects for the future so that the next generation may enjoy the riches of what was collected from the past.

At that time, I lived in Germany where, before you can start with the education, you must do an internship. This was perfect for me to find out if being a conservator was really the right next step for my future. After a remarkably interesting period learning about churches and castles, restoring fresco secco's, we moved back to the Netherlands.

There, I started with 4 years of education to become a wood and organics conservator at the Institute Collection Nederland. The last year of my internship was completed at the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam and Wereldmuseum Rotterdam. This is where my passion for Ethnographics started and since then (2005) working in this field as an independent conservator for all the Dutch ethnographic museums and private clients.


WC - In 10 words or less, how would you describe yourself and your philosophy as a curator/ conservator?

SS - Respect the object and culture, act with care, reversible methods.


WC - Museums are theatres of science, culture, and art – designed to entertain, educate, and preserve public collections.What is your favourite experience you have had in a museum or exhibit and why?

SS - Three years ago, I had the opportunity to conserve 12 bis poles in the museum hall of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. The poles where too big to bring to the conservation workplace. So, over 4 months, 6 days a week, in teams of 2, we cleaned the bis poles one by one there in the museum hall. We took samples of both wood and paint for analysis where required. This under the watchful eye of the museum visitors, who could ask us questions about the treatment required to conserve these items, about the meaning of the bis poles, their provenance and acquisition. It was a wonderful experience.


WC - What sparked your passion for Oceanic art and culture?

SS - The vast range of natural materials, colours of ochres used alongside the care and passion with the way each object is made and then used in daily life or for ceremonies. Also, the respect for the ancestors and the circle of life.


WC - Who is the person that has most influenced you and why?

SS - My tutor in Germany. He inspired me for the profession as a conservator, gave me the opportunity and confidence to learn and practice. It opened my eyes that things can be beautiful even though you don’t’ think in the beginning they are. But when you have eye for the time, context, materials, and limited tools things are made with, your view changes.


WC - The role of the museum has changed over the years.From your perspective, what is the purpose of a museum and of a museum curator/ conservator today, and how do you think museums should change in the future?

SS - I see a change in the traditional way of exposing objects to a more overall experience for the museum visitor. In the Netherlands for example, for a couple of years now there has been a focus on contemporary issues when dealing with in Western Europeans. For example, the exhibition “What a genderful World”. In Europe, we see the colour ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ as a way of identifying masculine or feminine. However, in Turkey, there is no word as ‘he’ or ‘she’ in their language. In Mexico, they have a third gender called Muxe (who is a person assigned male at birth who dresses and behaves in ways otherwise associated with women; they may be seen as a third gender). With the help of objects such as beautiful initiation artefacts from Oceania you can help educate people about this interesting topic and the difference or similarities between cultures. I think the purpose of a museum visit is that an exhibition should invite you to think about a topic, make discussions possible and help you learn from it. Also, I would prefer to see more temporary exhibitions on Tribal art, away from Ethnographic artefacts because a great part of them never leave the depot (storage) for visitors to see anyway, and that is a real pity.


WC - Why are Oceanic art and artefacts relevant today?

SS - I think they were relevant in the past, today and still will be in the future. They give us an insight and hopefully a better understanding of the life and rich culture of the indigenous people. People who respect nature and live closer with nature then we do. I think we can learn a lot from them.


WC - What are some of your favourite pieces in the collections you have been involved with and why?

SS - Of course the bis poles, the ancestor’s prow of Papua New Guinea. I am fascinated by their meaning, the ceremonies they are used for, the beauty of the carvings and the use of the ochres.

Another piece is a dance head from Suriname, I love the colourful feathers used, it was awfully hard to make a good mount to display the head due to its fragile nature and the weight of construction of the head.

Another is the Nkisi (which are spirits or an object that a spirit inhabits which can be found in a variety of African objects) from the Africa Museum. When starting conservation on a tremendously important African sculpture, I felt a strong spirit presence and not long after became very nauseous. I walked away and went to speak with a colleague about it. After consultation with my colleague, who had dealt a lot in nkisis, they told me to ask the nkisi if it was okay and to let it know that I am coming with to it with respect and good intentions.When I returned, and did what my colleague had asked, the nauseous feeling went away. Spirits are powerful.


WC - When displaying ethnographic cultural artefacts in museums, the results have sometimes been accused of being sterile, hollow, or colonial fantasies.How do you display cultural artefacts respectfully and create an experience that bridges two vastly different worlds in a way that honours the artefact and the culture?

SS - I think by combining the use of digital media, text and sound with the objects can be nicely shown and displayed under good museum conditions, and still can give us a good experience. I understand that people think sometimes museums are too sterile, but for me as a conservator it is important that the way of displaying should not have an impact on the long-term conditions of the artefacts. And colonial fantasies must definitely be avoided…


WC - Many people want to display their own collections of Oceanic Art.What is your favourite way of displaying pieces and why?Are there any tips and tricks you use?

SS - I like it when an object gets its own unique mounting so it can hang on your wall and support the object where necessary.I make use of brass, give it a protection coat, and use museum felt so the object has no direct contact with the used materials. A tip to be aware of is keeping distance off the object to the wall, otherwise there may come condensation with all kinds of problems (mold etc). Keep your object out off direct sunlight, colours will fade for example, and make sure that the relative humidity is not too low in your house.


WC - What is the most important lesson(s) you have learned in your line of work?

SS - That each intervention of the hand of a conservator must be considered if it is necessary. That we must be very aware of using the right materials so we do not change the appearance or meaning of the object; and will we harm it in the future due to our treatments. For example, if I clean an object, I should only take off the museum dust and not the ethnographic dirt, which has become a part of the history of the object.


WC - What are you most proud of?

SS - In both the past and recent past I have been asked by international and national private collectors to conserve their ethnograhic objects. They found me through references from museum colleagues, who have said “you must contact Silvia she as she has the right experience and will treat your objects with complete respect, passion and knowledge.” My tutor from Germany also is a great reference for me; even with the lack of work due to this pandemic, I always can contact him, and he will help me out with new opportunities.


WC - Which artefacts or permanent exhibits on Oceanic Art and Culture should people put on their bucket list?

SS - Musee du quai Branley in Paris. Pitt Rivers in Oxford and the Ethnologisches Museum of Berlin.


WC - How would you like to see contemporary Oceanic art and culture change into the future?

SS - That is a difficult question. For me, their culture does not have to change, and I hope we respect their way of living without too much intervening from the West.


WC - What book(s) would you recommend to people who are passionate about Oceanic Art and Culture?

SS - How to Read Oceanic Art by Eric Kjellgren, Oceanic Art A.J.P. Meyer, Woodcarvings of South West New Guinea Derk Smith, Collecting in the South Sea: The Voyage of Bruni d”Entrecasteaux 1791-1994, edited by B. Douglas, F.W. Veys& B. Lythberg.


WC - If you were to write a book, what would be the title and how would it conclude?

SS - Never thought about that…. My sabbatical in Oceania. A wish comes true!

Many thanks to Silvia who did a wonderful job traversing Dutch into English.