Sunday, February 20, 2011

Final "Durability and Change" Notes

This is my last post of responses to the book Durability and Change: The Science, Responsibility, and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage. All that follows is little more than some intriguing quotes and a couple comments from two chapters.

Ch. 19 “Sharing Responsibility for Conservation Decisions”
Author Stefan Michalski writes that he has spent 13 years understanding why paintings crack, “Now that I understand cracking, I am not sure how it matters.” (p. 241)

Also, in his study of collections care he has come to the understanding that “(a) artifacts vary enormously in value and (b) not all deterioration decreases artifact value, some even increases it.” (p. 241)

In discussing the value of artifacts, he suggest that rather than using a medical analogy to discuss the work of conservators, a better analogy would be found in the field of veterinary medicine. “Objects range from thoroughbreds to earthworms. … Note that whereas earthworms are not precious as individuals, as a species they probably have more significance to Gaia than all the higher mammals combined.” (p. 252)

I think this earthworm analogy has interesting relevance to libraries which are built around collections. A single book is, in and of itself, not that significant, but a whole lot of books can make a vital library. This seems to be one of the core library/museum differences. Libraries are filled with millions of earthworms, some invertebrates and a handful of mammals, and a thoroughbred or two, and museums have a lot of higher mammals, several throroughbreds, and a handful of earthworms.

“We must realize that to say we have a responsibility to the object is only a parable. Our responsibility is to our biological inheritance as perceptive, active, emotional beings and our social inheritance as knowledgeable, cultural being, as influenced by objects.” (p. 257) I’m still not quite sure I understand what that means - but it seems worth noting.

Ch. 20 “Should we take it all so seriously? Culture, Conservation, and Meaning in the Contemporary World.” by D.E. Cosgrove.

“I place in question the stability of meaning implicit in ideas of conserving art objects, cultural materials, and artifacts in the face of change.” (p. 260)

“These contemporary perspectives force the primary question of what, if anything, we are identifying, conserving, and preserving in the “material objects of the European canon,” beyond a set of artifacts selected according to values established by an acquisitive bourgeoisie which reached its apotheosis in nineteenth-century Europe and sustained by the market ever since.” (p. 260)

With libraries the questions is what objects do libraries collect, and therefore preserve. Whereas museums collect mostly non-commercially produced objects, libraries collect primarily commercially produced objects. We collect and preserve, what the markets have deemed potentially profitable products.

(My next book is A Place, Not a Place by David Carr, but this will not be a big reading/posting week, so don't expect anything from me for a bit.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Time and again

Today’s post continues my interaction with the book Durability and Change: The Science, Responsibility, and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage. Report of the Dahlem workshop on Durability and Change, December, 6-11, 1992. John Wiley & Sons, 1994.

Ch. 3 Durability and Change: a Biochemist’s View by F. Cramer.

I confess to not expecting to pay much attention, or be very inspired by a biochemists’ view, but when I saw the first subheading was “A Philosophical Notion On Time” I was drawn in and intrigued to discover echoes of some of my impermanence writing and conversation.

Cramer writes, “We finally have come to realize that the world is a process. Not, the world exists, but it occurs. (p. 20) [emphasis author’s] And so, if we understand the world, and the matter that comprises the objects of the world as occurring as part of a process, we once again have to ask ourselves, what is it exactly are we attempting to preserve? And, how does this impact our thinking about the mythical, original object?

He goes on to diagram a twofold structure for the course of time:
1) a cyclical, repetitive, reversible structure that guarantees duration
2) an irreversible, progressive, arrow-like structure that is responsible for change
The first arises out of Newtonian physics, the second is the product of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. (Can you believe it, another reference to the 2nd law of thermodynamics.)

“In reality, neither of the two modes of time will occur completely separately.” (p. 21) He then introduces Mandelbrot’s concept of fractal time and although I’m intrigued  I’m gradually losing comprehension of what he is talking about.

Ch. 6 Group Report: What is Durability in Artifacts and What Inherent Factors Determine It?

Continuing the discussion of time that was introduced by Cramer in his biochemist chapter the participants present a very reasonable, human-scale, statement about ‘permanence’ and planning for the future of artifacts:
“Realistically, ‘a generation or two’ seems appropriate since, in most instances, we cannot plan indefinitely. This does not imply that a conservator should not do the best to preserve an artifact, but rather that we must recognize that future generations should and will make their own decisions about what to keep, preserve, and discard.” (p. 55)

This introduces me to new aspect of the conversation that I’m intrigued by - despite what we think and plan, ultimately we hand over the right to make decisions about the ongoing care for artifacts to the next generation, who may decide otherwise. So, while we may determine some object needs to be preserved indefinitely, that decision need not be preserved indefinitely. Obviously, once the decision has been made to preserve ‘indefinitely’ precedent has been set, and those who inherit the object should give it its due regard, but future generations have the right and responsibility to reconsider and to opt not to preserve.

I came across one other time related statement in this chapter which gave me some pause.
“In principle, a conservator hopes to keep any artifact free from appreciable deterioration indefinitely.” 
If this is in fact a key conservator principle, and it could well be, then we have a problem. We’ve a discipline built on a principle that I would argue runs counter to fact. The ‘fact’ is artifacts will not be free from deterioration indefinitely. I’ve considered that perhaps we can read this conservator‘s “hope” like an organization’s vision statement - like a non-profit that aims/hopes to rid the world of illiteracy. Ridding the world of illiteracy is theoretically possible; keeping an artifact free from appreciable deterioration, however, is neither theoretically nor practically possible. It’s as absurd as saying “Doctors hope to keep their patients alive indefinitely.”

It’s interesting that the sentence’s author suggests the conservator “hopes to keep any artifact free from appreciable deterioration indefinitely.” Hope doesn’t seem like a very scientific activity. My somewhat cynical re-writing of this sentence becomes “The conservator hopes to maintain an illusion.”  which just isn’t very satisfying as a guiding principle.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Standards or Stories

I’ve recently finished reading Durability and Change: The Science, Responsibility, and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage and I’m trying to figure out a good way of responding to what I’ve read and also craft blog entries that might be somewhat engaging reading. The book consists of presentations given at a conference, followed by group reports on various conference themes.

Ch. 17 “Group report: What are appropriate strategies to evaluate change and to sustain cultural heritage?”

Not surprisingly the conversation of this group turned to the question of standards and the codification of standards both for assessing and describing the rate of deterioration, as well as for procedures to sustain cultural heritage. It seems to me the desire for better standards and more comprehensive adoption/adherence to those standards is a perennial concern across disciplines, but especially in the world of conservation.

I accept that the goal of the idea of standards is good conservation, which is a noble goal, but I’m not certain that standards is necessarily a good path to that goal. I think the ongoing quest for standards is often a veiled - or not so veiled - effort to control the decisions and actions of colleagues for which we disapprove - especially for colleagues whose training, credentials, experience we do not think is adequate. Having a set standard, and some mysterious method for enforcement, means that the hack at the institution down the road who calls himself a conservator has to stop doing what he is doing.

Additionally, the emphasis on standards also seems to be a way of trying to reign in all the things in life we don’t have control of - all the unknowns. We know that we will never have all the potentially useful and relevant knowledge, we will never consider all the possible options before acting and so we appeal to standards to ensure the neither we, nor anybody else, makes any serious errors. The presence of good standards, we hope, will assuage our fear that we might unwittingly do the wrong thing.

I’m not against standards, or at least I’m not against promoting the best possible work we can do, but I resist efforts to control others (especially passive aggressive ones) and I resist thinking that through codified standards I can compensate for all uncertainties and unknowns. You can‘t. Deal with it.

I am going to boldly suggest that we don’t need better standards, we need better stories. We need to hear more honest stories of conservators doing their work - what they did, how they made decisions, what worked, what didn’t. Telling good stories means telling honest stories which involves being vulnerable and telling stories of things you did for which you might be ashamed to tell your professional colleagues. (We all have those stories.) We really need to hear and tell stories of failure. Nothing will help us remember to test the ink before washing the paper like a really good story of someone ignoring that step to devastating effect.

Of course, we also need to hear good stories of success. We need to hear the stories of seasoned pros, and of enthusiastic novices. I remember at a small preservation conference that I helped coordinate - our after dinner speaker was James Craven, head of conservation at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan and the godfather of library conservation in Michigan. With his dry wit, curmudgeonly charm, and many, many slides he told a couple stories of items he had worked on. Nobody left the room without having a better idea of how a good conservator goes about the business of conserving.

In telling our stories we together build up the story of what good conservation looks like, we build up the story of how a good conservator acts. No one person or organization has the one story that defines conversation, but rather the larger story is made up of many voices and may stories. In hearing all these stories, the next time we have to deal with an object we will ask ourselves how do I and this object interact in a way that fit’s the story of good conservation.

((As I re-read what I’ve written, I think to myself, this sounds like exactly what a seminary graduate would write - and probably sounds exactly not like someone with a physical sciences degree would write.))