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.

No comments:

Post a Comment