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.


  1. “In principle, a conservator hopes to keep any artifact free from appreciable deterioration indefinitely.”

    How about rewriting this to: "In principle, a conservator's aim is to keep an artifact free from irreversible deterioration as long as possible."

    Sounds a bit better than "maintain an illusion," and hopefully is a more attainable goal (either the deterioration indefinitely or the maintain an illusions one).

  2. Hey Eric,
    Just before putting this post online I read the end and thought "That's a depressing way to end." I knew I should have come up with a positive rewrite, but I was tired and just didn't feel like it. I definitely like your rewrite better than the original statement.

    Not surprisingly, I'd probably write something a bit different. Right now I seem to be on this kick of conservators acknowledging/accepting decay or impermanance - so I'd come up with something like "Conservators act to slow the process of decay." (I'm not sure I'm completely sold on that statement, but its a start.)

    But, I also want to acknowledge that I'm not certain that these statements make much of a difference to what conservators actually do on a day-to-day basis. The conservator who hopes to preserve indefinitely and the conservator who acts to slow the process of decay are very likely doing the exact same thing.

  3. Thanks for reporting on your reading of this Kevin, I love your "book reports." I never seem to have enough time to read anymore. I do have time to say thank you, however.

    I've nominated your blog for a Stylish Bloggers Award, a peer-driven effort to recognize quality blogging. Keep up the great work!

  4. Beth, thanks for your comments. I'm glad to hear from you and Dan that you actually like my book report things. It is a good process for me to read/process/and write about these books, but I wasn't sure that it would do much for anyone else.
    And thanks for the Stylish Blogger nomination. I'm honored.