Thursday, April 26, 2012

Portraits in Preservation SE – Cheyenne Bsaies

Portraits in Preservation Student Edition, Preservation Week 2012

If Cheyenne Bsaies could choose a superpower, it would be a cross between the teleportation skills of X-Men’s Nightcrawler and the multi-limbed dexterity of Vishnu. Then maybe she could get everything done. Until such superpowers manifest, she does the best she can juggling an internship at the Library of Congress, a job at a trade bindery, a final semester of organic chemistry, a seat on the board of the Potomac chapter of the GBW, and the myriad duties of a single mother. She’s been bookbinding since 2007, and preparing for a career in conservation since 2009.  This summer, she’ll be working as a conservation intern at the Spencer Library at the University of Kansas. In the fall, she’ll attend the Museum Studies program at Syracuse. You can read about her adventures on her blog:

What experience or person has greatly influenced your desire to pursue preservation?

I don’t think I can pin it on one experience in particular, it’s been cumulative. Growing up as a third-culture kid, travelling and moving constantly, I noticed very early on the difference between how rich societies are able to maintain their historical landmarks and works of art as compared to poor societies.

Before my mother became an engineer, her dream was to be an architect. My father, an economist, long harbored literary aspirations. I suppose it was natural for them to want to expose their children to the arts. I think I must credit my parents, my upbringing, most for laying the foundation for my interest in the field. However, my eventual discovery of bookbinding solidified what started as a hunch.

What has been a particularly rewarding experience in your preservation training?

The basic approach of preservation seems to hold true no matter where the collection resides. Managing the environmental factors, stabilizing the collection, channeling items through workflows created to address specific needs, all standard practices in any institution. The obstacles an institution faces in meeting these goals, and the people intent on overcoming those challenges make each circumstance unique.

From the start, I’ve known that I want to use whatever education and training I receive to work with institutions in other countries struggling against nearly impossible odds to extend the life of their collections. In October 2010, I moved to Manila to spend some time with family. I had visited once before for a few weeks, but this time I was there for months attending classes, making friends and otherwise learning about a new culture. While there I made a wonderful friend, a very talented printmaker named Ambie Abaňo. She took me to an exhibit of books, manuscripts and prints at the University of Santo Tomas, one of the oldest universities in Asia, founded by the Spanish in 1611.

As you might imagine, they have some very interesting and rare items in their collection. UST is located in the heart of Manila, an incredibly polluted and humid city. Ambie introduced me to Father Aparicio, director of the Heritage Section of the Miguel de Benavides Library. He gave me a tour through their stacks, discussed their preservation initiatives and the many challenges they face. His commitment, positivity and determination to make the best of a difficult situation inspired me. It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered a wealth of history and culture endangered due to a lack of resources, but it was the first time I’d seen it through the lens of my own desire to intervene and assist.

What are you looking forward to personally contributing to the larger preservation world?

Before I can answer that I have to make a statement about my perspective on the meaning of objects of historical and cultural value. If I may borrow a term from literary theory, I think I might assert that such objects are floating signifiers. Their value isn’t contingent upon what materials or techniques were used to create them (interesting topics, though they may be), but on the narrative framework their creation provides a culture about its own identity. And because cultures are not static, the longer an object exists the longer that culture can respond to and imbue the object with its shifting narrative. We need all these frescoes and incubula and quilts, etc., to remind us where we came from, who we were, and what we may still become. I don’t think anything is meant to last forever. But the ideas which are inspired by and evolve from such creations have the potential for a kind of immortality.  

That said, an object that is removed from the culture from which it sprang, whether by well-meaning foreign institutions or unchecked deterioration, can no longer contribute to the historical and narrative process—the Grail is just an empty cup without the story of Christ to fill it. What I’d like to do is facilitate the process of directing resources and training local students, artists, and professionals to be stewards of their own treasures. Forming partnerships and exchanging ideas, finding novel approaches to climatological and economic issues--that’s where I want to make a difference.

What do you see is a pressing issue facing the preservation world?

I’m still quite early in my career, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to make broad statements about the field or its issues. I often see parallels to the medical profession. There won’t ever be a lack of sick patients or objects needing care, and much of what we accomplish depends on the character and dedication of the people involved and the collective commitment of our societies to support that care and that we view the results as worthy.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you want to preserve and why?

As a bookbinder, the obvious answer might be ‘books’. However, I think I would reiterate what I was driving at while responding to your third question. What I really want to preserve are ideas, traditions, cultural identities. The technology or matrix on which they are preserved is incidental. Perhaps my focus on books and paper will define my career, perhaps other opportunities will arise and give new shape to my path. The one lesson I’ve been taught at every turn is to adapt.

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