Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Jesus painting is better than your Jesus painting

I know I'm a little late to this flash-in-the-pan story of the "restored" Jesus painting that has so "shocked" the conservation community.

First off, I want to acknowledge and appreciated Beth Doyle's post on PCAN for her compassionate response to this event. I've seen several people suggest that this event is evidence that the conservation community should do more public education, but I would also suggest that this should also be an invitation for the conservation community to do a bit more self reflection.

I would suggest that the this "restored" painting bothers the conservation community because it violates the very specific and controlled narrative western conservation has constructed. It violates the narrative which justifies the work and existence of western conservation. What is "supposed" to happen with old painting X that has some damage, is those responsible for the painting humbly seek out professional western conservator Y who treats the painting according to their strict professional code of ethics. The final "restored" painting will fit seamlessly into the narrative and the conservative community will look on it with satisfaction. When someone, like this 80 year old woman steps outside the narrative, and the final "restored" painting looks as it currently does we are offended. Our narrative, and our authority was ignored.

I wonder if there is a useful comparison to the narrative of western medicine. Western medicine also presents a very specific narrative which is much like the narrative of western conservation. However, western culture has been open to draw on other medical/health narratives of chinese remedies and chakras and the like.

I don't mean to suggest that the western conservation narratives are invalid, nor am I promoting the idea that everyone go out and paint over all the old paintings they want, but I do think it is always helpful to recognize the world is larger than our narrative, and thus, a little humility is always a good thing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Throughout all of documentary history, loss is the norm.*

Yesterday @blefurgy tweeted a line which caught my attention.

After a little research I figured out this line came from “Challenges and Opportunities for PersonalDigital Archivinga chapter by Catherine C. Marshall in the book I, Digital published by Society of American Archivists. It’s an intriguing and well researched study of people attitudes and activities with regards to their own digital “collections.”

I’ll provide some extended quotes (something you can’t do on twitter) without any commentary except for the one thought that came to me after reading the article.

As we examine what people do, a puzzling pattern emerges: people seem to be relying on disk crashes, technology failure, and periodic obsolescence as a way of pruning their collections. As we examine what people do, a puzzling pattern emerges: people seem to be relying on disk crashes, technology failure, and periodic obsolescence as a way of pruning their collections. It is not that loss does not bother them; it is rather that loss makes their collections more tractable. The accumulated weight of these digital belongings is swept away, so that they can focus their attention on the present.” P. 101-102

“But we can readily identify some countervailing reasons why we would not keep everything. First and foremost is that although storage is cheap, human attention is far less so. Furthermore, as we will see later in this chapter (and in other chapters of this book), stewardship is more than simply storing digital belongings once on reliable storage; stewardship requires continual attention to the items and media in a collection:” p. 102

“We are looking for the digital equivalent to benign neglect.” P. 103

“Thus, if we return to our earlier realization—it is easier to keep than to cull—we can further muse that it is easier to lose than maintain. And that, in a nutshell, encapsulates benign neglect as a personal digital archiving strategy.” P. 110

“Benign neglect and intrinsic distribution can become instrumental in securing a digital future in which we neither keep everything, nor lose everything, nor become shackled by the need to sustain our growing accumulations of digital belongings.” P. 112

I think it might be helpful to distinguish between those things people collect and those things people accumulate. Hoarders of the “reality tv” variety are not so much collectors of newspapers and trash so much as accumulators of the stuff. They get it and don’t get rid of it. Most of the papers, brochures, and business cards cluttering my desk are things that have accumulated and not things that I have particularly collected. Most of my digital possessions fall more into the category of accumulations than collections.I wonder if distinguishing between things accumulated and things collected would result in different attitudes towards their disposition.

*I must credit the “loss is the norm” line to the individual who reviewed the I, Digital book at . Apart from this helpful line, the reviewer seems like a writer who thoroughly enjoys reading his own writing.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Portraits in Preservation: Daniel Heath Cull

I'm very pleased to be able to post a new Portrait in Preservation and especially pleased that the subject/object of this portrait is Dan Cull. I've long enjoyed the insightful and challenging things Dan has to say both on his blog and elsewhere.

(The long spell of no portraits posted on this blog is a result of my limited willingness to ask, then remind, then harangue people to participate. I would love to post more portraits, but do not desire to annoy people in the process. The invite is open to all who would like to participate, and as you can see by this portrait, is not limited to those who work in the library context.)

Daniel Cull at work. Photo by Sara Blackwood
Bio: Daniel Heath Cull resides in Phoenix, Arizona, where he holds the position of Conservator at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). Daniel undertook his professional training at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UCL), where he received a BSc in Archaeology, an MA in Principles of conservation, and an MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. Daniel was later awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Washington, DC, where he also spent one summer on the Rosebud reservation making drums, and taking part in numerous social and religious gatherings.

Daniel’s other major conservation hat is writing about conservation, he is on the board of e-conservation, and writes a short column for each issue of the magazine, and for several years also published a personal weblog. He’s an advocate, and content creator, for emerging social media and amongst his peer-reviewed publications he has authored a book chapter that discusses the ethical implications of Wikipedia for conservators.

Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development.

Looking back at the early development of my ideas about conservation, there’s two occasions that I think combined to form the basis for my belief that preservation could have a significant role to play within society; both of these occasions took place when I was an undergraduate at UCL. I remember a lecturer who once said something along the lines of: “If you really wanted to save heritage, you’d go into politics”. It was quite an antagonistic statement in a class about archaeological site preservation, but one that has a real element of truth to it, as a single political decision has the potential to preserve a huge amount more cultural heritage than any conservator could in a lifetime. It was at this time that I was really developing an interest in preservation, and a certain level of distain for politicians. Sometime later I attended a lecture, by a member of the EZLN in exile, about the importance of preserving cultural heritage to the Maya of Chiapas, and the centrality of indigenous culture and heritage to their political struggle. At that time I realized cultural heritage preservation is as much about everyday life as it is about the contents of cases in museums. I also realized that not all interactions between cultural heritage and politics take place between white men in the board rooms of quasi-governmental heritage organizations. This realization has become the bedrock of my beliefs and theoretical explorations about preservation.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview? 

That’s a difficult one. To be honest it’s really hard to know, but it’s impossible to believe that it hasn’t in ways both subtle, and not so subtle. The most obvious changes I can attribute to working in the preservation field are more directly associated with my views of preservation, and the heritage field itself. I think overtime I’ve become a lot more cynical about the value of cultural heritage preservation as a distinct “profession”, I’ve certainly developed the view that the preservation of cultural heritage distinct from the practice of that cultural heritage is an interesting way to spend ones time, and valuable as a part of the heritage ‘industry’, but that its cultural value is less certain, and quite possibly even detrimental. So from time-to-time it’s good to have that cynicism wiped away. I once received a phone call from a community consultant, with whom I had worked on an exhibit for the NMAI, he was phoning to let me know about the huge impact of the exhibit within the community. He described how community elders shed tears of joy as it was the first time their voices had been given a national stage, and their community represented in their own words in Washington, DC. The phone call was incredibly emotional, and so for me it was a deeply humbling experience that spoke to the human impact of preservation; I’ll never forget that phone call.

What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you?

 I like the fact that the field of conservation is very much in it's infancy, and therefore a lot of avenues are still potentially open to explore. What really engages me is the potential for developing a socially-conscious practice, and the associated development of critical voices in the field. The blog I ran for 4 years, and many of the articles I write for e-conservation, have at their core the idea of developing my own version of such a voice - in as much as I can given my own cultural background, as well as exploring some of the many potentially interesting ideas that I think could come under the rubric of what I call ‘conservation studies’. When I think of such studies I’m reminded of the statement by Karl Marx that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”, as such I think it’s critically important that when conservators engage in theoretical explorations that we also grapple with the necessary changes that our profession must make. The preservation professions still continue to appear to favor white euro-centric christian patriarchal hetero-normative culture, to the detriment of other cultures, and it is imperative that this changes, and that such changes are structural and not tokenistic. This is a much bigger challenge than I think our professions have realized, but it is one that I find exciting, and daunting, at the same time.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well? 

 By far the most important thing I think is to say: don’t be scared of the objects, but do show them respect. It is important to accept that your actions are going to change the object, and from time to time that change might not be for the better. It’s a weird thing to say, but it probably is a good thing to have broken an object or two early in your career to get over that fear. Once you come to realize this I think you get less scared of the objects and become more open to really meeting the challenges that will come across your bench, to being open to experimental ideas and learning from a variety of sources. Because the next lessons I think build on not being scared and they’re to really know what your end point is, and to not do something just because you can. These approaches I believe will help ground your practice in ideas of respect, both to the objects themselves and the people to whom the objects hold special meaning.

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

The flippant answer would be musical instruments and related ephemera, because that's what I get paid to do! A deeper answer might be objects that represent the musical traditions of the world, as a means of facilitating the exploration of what it means to be human. But my own personal answer would be that at it’s best I preserve objects that allow the public to experience the wonder of the past, the present, and the unknown, to question their lives and to contextualize their reality within the world at large. And it's fun, and challenging, let's not forget that.