Published: March 20, 2018

Q&A with a Conservator on the Complex History of Ivory

Head of Conservation Stephanie Hornbeck specializes in ethnographic objects conservation, including ivory objects. She also has a personal interest in the biological conservation of elephants, which are endangered animals.

Two women wearing headlamps peer into the mouth of a large taxidermy elephant

You sit in the Anthropology department, but your work sounds very cross-departmental. Can you tell us what that’s like in practice?  

As an object conservator, my academic training and professional experience involve the conservation of cultural heritage (which is distinct from biological conservation). At the Field Museum, the Conservation Department in Anthropology has traditionally focused on the care, treatment, and study of material culture and artifacts. Many of these are fabricated of materials found in the natural world. Of course, the museum also has a vast collection of specimens from the natural world.

My interest in ivory and elephants dates to graduate school, when I was involved in a project to surface-clean and stabilize a fragile Asian elephant skeleton in a small museum collection. Later on, as a professional conservator, I conversed with a curator of ivory history in American collections while I worked on African ivory art at the Smithsonian. I became very interested in the intersection of the collection of elephant ivory artifacts at museums and the strict laws implemented to protect elephants.

My specific interest in elephant ivory focuses on how it’s identified on cultural artifacts, and how cultural objects are regulated when ivory is present. While my work does not involve the biological conservation of elephants, in my work with ivory artifacts, I am committed to respecting the laws enacted to protect them. I strive to educate conservators about the larger context around ivory objects and advocate for responsible collections stewardship as well as respect for living elephants.

A museum display with a sign that reads "altar objects." An array of carved figure, mostly human figures, is displayed on top of a small platform. A carved ivory tusk is seen on the right. Behind the display is a black-and-white photograph showing these and other objects arranged in a similar fashion.

This reproduction Benin royal alter to the Oba with carved ivory tusk and cast bronze objects is on display in our Africa exhibition.

Poaching animals for their ivory is nothing new—the Syrian “war” elephant was hunted to extinction back in the 8th century BC. Are the issues surrounding ivory complicated by their long history?

Where the cultural use of elephant ivory was a royal prerogative, as in the Royal Kingdom of Benin, access to local sources was restricted. However, the advent of trade networks, which allowed the transportation of ivory around the world to satisfy a large demand for ivory carved objects and inlays, seriously impacted the conservation of elephant species. In a parallel to today’s ivory poaching crisis in Africa, in the 8th century BC, the Syrian elephant was hunted to extinction because of cultural demand for ivory.

In the 19th century, the United States was the world’s greatest consumer of ivory. Before advances in polymer chemistry gave the world plastic materials, ivory was used very widely to produce everyday items like toiletry sets, cutlery handles, cane and umbrella heads, billiard balls, and piano keys. Although today China is the largest consumer, demand in the United States remains significant.

Ivory demand in the 20th and 21st centuries has caused the greatest decimation of the African elephant population; in 2012, an estimated 35,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory tusks. In 2013, while on a trip to Tanzania, President Obama announced a strategy to combat wildlife trafficking—one important aspect was strengthening a near-total federal ban on African elephant ivory commerce. This has led to stronger regulations, including the 2016 modifications to the African Elephant rule of the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Are there other examples of animal parts or materials being used by humans to the peril of a species? What can we learn from these?

In our work and research as conservators, we examine, analyze, or image artifact materials to identify their origins, including from animals. The fabrication of cultural objects (art or artifact) sometimes involves the use of animal parts, often for personal adornment. Animal furs, skins, and brightly colored feathers have been used by many cultures for clothing or decoration. Textile or costumes may also include attachments of animal teeth, claws, antlers, porcupine quills, or even iridescent green beetle wings. Anthropology collections like ours at the Field Museum offer many compelling examples of the imaginative use of natural materials to produce cultural objects.

Sometimes the resulting works are so aesthetically or culturally valued that they create demand for the production of similar objects. Some kingfisher bird species were hunted to extinction in China for their bright turquoise feathers used to decorate hair combs, fibulae (brooches or pins for clothing), and fans, in a technique called tian-tsui, “dotting with kingfishers.” Luxury demand for tortoiseshell and red coral for decorative objects has affected the biological conservation of those organisms.

Rhinoceros horn is composed of keratin like our fingernails. Today, it is so prized as a status symbol when carved into an object—and for a mistaken belief in its medicinal properties—that both white and black rhinos are seriously threatened species. Pangolins, tigers, and sharks are also in jeopardy from human demand for their parts. You can find more information via the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. 

A woman wearing gloves holds a smartphone with a microscope attached to the camera. She holds it over what appears to be an ivory bracelet, peering intently. Several other carved ivory objects rest on the table.

Stephanie examines ancient elephant and hippo ivory objects using a microscope attachment on her smartphone.

You just published an article that was included in a special issue of Curator: The Museum Journal, that is entirely dedicated to elephant ivory. Why is this such an important topic, and what do you hope readers will get from your paper?

After 2013, there was heightened awareness and serious concern about ivory demand and its impact on elephant conservation. This led to broad restrictions applicable even to ancient or antique objects, fabricated long before the current crisis feeding the demand for raw ivory. From 2014 to 2016, changes to the existing African elephant regulations created uncertainty for museum professionals, including conservators—there was a concern that previous exemptions for legally acquired, antique (older than 100 years) worked ivories might be eliminated. These regulatory changes were, of course, intended to increase protections for living African elephants in response to a surge in poaching. But there’s also an impact on the transportation of older ivory art and artifacts for exhibition loan.

Conservators aim to protect and preserve artifacts and art objects for future generations. These efforts involve a preference for non-destructive analyses—ones that don’t require taking samples—and minimizing unnecessary testing for species identification or material dating. In our work, we follow professional standards of practice and abide by a code of ethics that respects laws and regulations that could have a bearing on objects we treat, including those comprised of endangered species.

The article I co-authored for Curator: The Museum Journal, “An Art Conservation Perspective: Saving the African Elephant and Ivory Cultural Heritage," describes the challenging period of 2013-2016 and presents the concerns of conservators regarding protections for legally documented ivory objects. The editors of this special issue of Curator assembled a range of professionals working with ivory collections to discuss the changing ways that these materials are contextualized and presented to the public. Carved objects and elephant species conservation are related in fraught ways today and serious discussion is critical. 

Stephanie Hornbeck is Head of Conservation in the Gantz Family Collections Center at the Field Museum. You can read her 2018 article (co-authored with Terry Drayman-Weisser) "An Art Conservation Perspective: Saving the African Elephant and Ivory Cultural Heritage," in Curator: The Museum Journal or access the full issue.

Stephanie also presented the webinar "The Care and Documentation of Ivory Objects" for The Connecting to Collections Care program, sponsored by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation. Access the archived webinar.