Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Two Conservators Ponder Impermanence

Earlier this week Preservation & Conservation Administration News (PCAN) graciously posted a piece that I wrote last fall titled A Conservator Ponders Impermanence. After writing this piece I sent it to Dan Cull to get his feedback.

With his permission I post an edited version of our correspondence. And, as always, thanks to Dan for his thoughtful work.

Greetings Dan

This is Kevin Driedger, occasional online communicant and host of the former "library preservation" blog.

Pardon my intrusion but I've written this odd little thing and I'd be curious to hear your comments and thoughts. (And please feel free to say it sounds like the ramblings of a brain damaged Pink Floyd groupie on Vicodin - or not.) It is written out of/into the library context but I'm hoping what it says resonates beyond.

I really enjoy and am impressed by the breadth of your interests and awareness expressed on your blog.

Kevin Driedger

Hi Kevin,

Great to hear from you; I was really sad to see your blog is no longer online, any chance you archived it anywhere - can you archive blogs? It had such wonderful content. Thanks for the comments about my blog, I try to cover at least a few of my interests, and as you can see they’re pretty varied by my links page! 

By the way; the ramblings of a brain damaged Pink Floyd groupie would be awesome! So maybe I'm not fit to judge.

It's an interesting piece, where is it going to be published? I think it could easily be applicable to a wider field than library conservation. I suspect this email response might be a bit jumbled.

I think you're right, there's very little discussion about when something should be left to die in peace. Maybe if the U.S got a Fed' Department of Culture - as I believe has been discussed of late - then we could get conservation "death panels"... lol, sorry couldn't resist. ;)

So, taking on from your associated argument, it will come as no great surprise that I agree, and in fact I think the moral/philosophical questions are far more significant than the technical ones. My general feeling is that we are already capable of coming up with technical solutions, and in fact we already have perfectly adequate solutions… I tend to find at those conferences that what is being argued over are essentially the semantics of the better of two already perfectly good solutions. My solution is to use the one you prefer. I am far more interested in morally and philosophically which is the right (or wrong) one to use… or should we be doing it at all!?? I also realize that, sadly, universities are not so interested in that approach, because science gets funding and the humanities don’t. But as you suggest in line with the Lowenthal quote, as a conservator you have to ask what is it that you want to be permanent... the physical object, or, the information; the thing the writing is on, or, the meaning of the writing and the ability to read it. I wonder in the library conservation field is digitization bringing this question up more, and adding a whole new level of complexity to this issue? I could imagine an argument being made to “just scan it and save all the money spent on conserving the thing”… which assumes (incorrectly) that it’s only the words that matter to anyone. 

I was interested in your reference to Buddhism. You mention in the same space about 'western conservation', and I think that's an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. Basically I immediately wonder how the central issue of this essay (impermanence/permanence) is considered within an Eastern Buddhist context? In other words maybe it’s not only that Buddhist ideas have no place in western conservation, but, maybe western conservation has no place in Buddhism? And what does that mean for our assumption of universal importance? I am personally fascinated by what conservation is like outside of the "western paradigm" [and have since written a blog post on that]. Because even when I find 'non-western conservation' examples, if you trace back the work they're usually the result of what amounts to what can only honestly be referred to as imperialism or globalization (western homogenization)…. You know something like a Getty or ICCROM funded field school; hardly non-western. But I do believe that Buddhists have an established system of cultural care that I'd like to learn more about...  anyway, bit of a tangent.

I recently wrote an article for e-conservation entitled Conserve or Destroy? that I think you might like. I want to get away from the idea of reversibility, which to me seems so dishonest... so when writing it I started thinking about the conservation process in a different way as "the creation of new objects".




Thanks for your thoughtful and generous thoughts.

On the topic of religion, my knowledge of Buddhism is also just enough to be dangerous. A very helpful article I found was "Spiritual materiality: heritage preservation in a Buddhist world?" by Anna Karlstrom. I'm very interested in understanding/uncovering the western, Enlightenment ideology that underlies our current ideas of conservation. I don't get the impression that the conservation world thinks there is an ideology/worldview underlying their work.

I am giving some thought to resurrecting my blog. It has been a very scattered and distracted past year or so, but it looks like things might be settling down with my work life that I would actually have the mental space to direct more attention to writing/blogging.

Take care,

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