A basket from Botswana, similar to some in Malawi.Lee Adair Lawrence
For the final phase of his fellowship, Mkumpha shifted from the American Museum of Natural History’s paleontology division to its ethnographic conservation lab. His task here is to preserve two baskets from Botswana.
Mkumpha is well suited to the job. He moves with deliberation, never giving the impression of being hurried or tempted to multi-task. With undivided attention, he gently brushes loose dirt from a basket. When a fragment of wicker breaks off, he pauses, picks it up with tweezers and carefully sets it aside. Later he will bag it and label it.
The other basket, its side collapsed, is sitting in a humidifying chamber that Mkumpha helped construct. Once humidity has sufficiently relaxed the fibers, Judith Levinson, director of the ethnographic conservation lab, will teach him how to gradually return the basket as much as possible to its original shape. This is not only an aesthetic decision, she explains. Restoring the basket to its original structure will prevent further breakage and deterioration. For now, however, Mkumpha keeps checking the humidity level on the hygrometer and weighing whether or not he should add this instrument to his list.
The list in question is one he is compiling with Marincola, who hopes to send him home with a suitcase filled with reading material and basic conservation equipment Mkumpha cannot find in Malawi: a polarizing microscope, an adhesive called Paraloid B-72, a laptop or two, a rugged Go Camera (which Mkumpha has learned how to attach to a kite to document rock art), a collapsible tripod, photo-editing and filing systems software, Ziploc baggies, safe foams and plastics, a digital hygrometer, moisture-absorbing silica gel and perhaps even India ink for labeling.
When Mkumpha returns to Malawi on June 1, he will take these objects to the southern commercial center of Blantyre. It is here, in the 1980s, that the antiquities department converted a seven-room bungalow into a storage and conservation facility. On previous visits, Mkumpha has found it daunting. Since the early 1990s, no one has directly overseen the care of objects and sites. The laboratory fell into disrepair. Inventories ceased. But the flow of objects into the department’s storage continued.
The objects most certainly include findings from Malawi’s rich fossil field and archaeological sites, as well as donations from families and village elders. Mkumpha cannot even begin to estimate what, and how many, pieces there are. But he returns primed to find out. He plans to train two assistants and start hauling down the boxes to inventory, photograph and document their contents.
Then comes the challenging part: creating for each object an environment that will protect it from future deterioration. Excavated metal implements, for example, need to be kept dry, baskets packed separately in non-acidic materials, and bones protected from dust and sudden changes in temperature. “I am excited because what I have learned is enough to do some good work,” he says. “But there is more I need to learn to do my job better.” Mkumpha is all too aware that future scholars will lose sources of knowledge if the objects in his care deteriorate. While this may feel unsettling, he is going home knowing that, now, he knows where to start.