Pushing Boundaries: Sanchita Balachandran and the Art of Conservation

art conservator in front of a display of ancient Greek artifacts Sanchita Balachandran, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and senior lecturer in the department of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum/James T. VanRensselaer

“Conservation in the 21st century can no longer just be about objects,” says Balachandran. “Conservation also has to be about the people whose lives are inscribed on them.”

“I knew I was in the right place at the right time,” Sanchita Balachandran told an audience at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

A multi-talented art conservator with an expansive range of research interests, Balachandran was recounting her work on an early twentieth century Indian pioneer in the chemical conservation of bronze treasures at the Madras Government Museum when her own grandfather entered the story. It happened that Balachandran’s forebear, a railway metallurgist, had met and collaborated with Dr. S. Paramasivan, the subject of her talk. The discovery of an unexpected family connection, confirmed by archival documents and other evidence, delighted her. The smiles of listeners around the room reflected her pleasure.

For Balachandran, finding where she was meant to be has become a defining through line in her career. Never was that more apparent than at the 2016 conference of the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) in Montreal, where she delivered a galvanizing General Session talk that helped jump-start a transformation in her field. Balachandran summoned her colleagues to “recognize the ways in which conservation routinely excludes certain hands, voices, perspectives, histories and legacies.” Grounding her argument in controversies stemming from Baltimore’s Confederate monuments and the scarcity of museum staff from underrepresented communities, she challenged her listeners to forge an expansive and broadly inclusive future for the profession.

“Conservation in the 21st century can no longer just be about objects,” she said. “Conservation also has to be about the people whose lives are inscribed on them.”

The reaction was swift, decisive and substantive. The AIC board established an equity and inclusion working group and has since put forth a Statement on Equity and Inclusion—the first in AIC’s 46-year history. The working group is charged with surveying members for ideas and perspectives on the state of social, cultural, and racial literacy as it relates to the preservation of cultural heritage. It is also advising the AIC Board on potential models, goals, and benchmarks that may help guide the field towards greater equity and has developed programs and communications to increase awareness of diversity and inclusion among all members. Enthusiasm has spread throughout the organization, with dozens joining an online discussion forum and community and specialty groups calling on members to mentor pre-college students from under-represented communities and to advocate for paid internships in museums and other conservation labs.  

students in front of pottery kilnStudents, visitors and the camera crew observe the first shelf of the kiln where test kylikes were fired in Recreating Ancient Greek Ceramics. Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum.

“Sanchita’s scholarly work, some of which has been supported by Mellon grants over the years, encompasses a sophisticated and boundary-pushing range of research, teaching, and applied conservation practice,” said Alison Gilchrest, a program officer for the Mellon Foundation's Arts and Cultural Heritage program. “Her ability to cogently frame these complex and urgent conversations about equity and representation in the conservation profession is rooted in these personal and intellectual passions, which is what makes her message so powerful."

“As a person of color in this field, she has experienced first-hand the need for open and frank discussions about some very hard topics,” said Jennifer Hain Teper, head of preservation services at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign library and chair of the AIC Working Group on Equity and Inclusion. “The fact that she is willing to lead has brought a lot more people to the table.”

In the spring of 2015, with funding support from the Mellon Foundation’s Arts and Cultural Heritage program, Balachandran conceived and taught a remarkable, hands-on class for Johns Hopkins students on Greek ceramics. Once again, in a right time-right place confluence, she turned to the fine Greek collection at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, where she is associate director.

The course set out to investigate the creation process of the Greek potters and painters by having the students make their own “ancient” pieces. Balachandran reached out to the university and wider Baltimore arts communities, enlisting the participation of local potter Matt Hyleck, filmmaker Bernadette Wegenstein and cinematographer Allen Moore (who together fashioned a vivid 18-minute documentary about the class) and the facilities and artisans of the off-campus Baltimore Clayworks.

Mysteries of the Kylix. Video courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

“What made it really exciting,” Balachandran recalled, “was that we had no idea what was going to happen.” While she said with a laugh that the successful firing of some contemporary red-figure ceramics was “pure luck,” both the collaborative nature of the class and its goal of “getting students out of the ivory tower and into a makers’ space” were fully intentional.

Balachandran continued her process-based study of Greek ceramics as a 2016-17 Getty Conservation Institute guest scholar. Among other things, she investigated the presence or absence of line drawings on 2500-year-old objects. Calling her “a breath of fresh air,” David Saunders, associate curator of antiquities at the Getty, said Balachandran “was able to pull together a number of different strands in her study. She’s willing to question the conventional wisdom.”

Born in Madras and widely traveled by virtue of her mother’s former work as one of India’s directors of tourism, Balachandran and her family settled in Los Angeles when she was fourteen. A “pre-ordained” plan to attend medical school was sidelined when a high school art history teacher opened her eyes to the museum world. During her undergraduate years, at Pomona College, Balachandran discovered her own natural fit in the field of art conservation “I loved all the accoutrements of conservation... the intimacy with the things and the bringing together of science and art,” recalled Balachandran.

One signal moment came when she worked on a Haitian exhibit at the University of California-Los Angeles Fowler Museum. When a religious practitioner was called in ensure the safety of the pieces, the notion that objects could be “activated” or “pacified” altered Balachandran’s perspective. Documenting different cultural practices, she realized, ought to be an essential part of a conservator’s job.

Balachandran did her graduate work at New York University; traveled to Italy, Egypt, South India, Cambodia and China for field work and archival research; and spent time at Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation among other places before settling at Johns Hopkins University a decade ago. Along the way she married and had two children.

sanchita_VR49839 copySEND.jpgSanchita Balachandran examining the inscriptions on an Egyptian coffin with graduate students. Photo courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum/James T. VanRensselaer

Upcoming projects include a proposed “facial reconstruction” of two ancient Egyptians whose remains are stewarded by the Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Her collaboration will involve medical imaging and forensic specialists—as well as students—and is sponsored by a Johns Hopkins-Mellon Foundation arts innovation grant.

Looking back to her 2016 AIC conference talk, “I wrote the abstract in a fit of anger,” Balachandran recalled. Among other events, the recent death of Freddie Gray in a Baltimore police van was fresh in her mind. “Then I had to sit down and think about why I cared about the field and what I had to contribute.”

What she found, along with an outpouring of gratitude and activism from colleagues, was a clarified sense of purpose. “When there are attacks on cultural heritage,” said Balachandran, citing the Dakota Access Pipeline protests as a recent example, “it’s our responsibility to speak up and say this is not acceptable. Because cultural heritage is not simply about tangible things, it goes to the core of who people are and what stories they tell about themselves, who their ancestors were, and who they might become in the future. Our work as conservators has to be about keeping these stories alive.”