Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is there a past tense to preserve?

I saw a tweet yesterday which got those rusty wheel in my brain spinning. It was from Kara Van Malssen @kvanmalssen who describes herself on Twitter as “Senior consultant for all things digital preservation & access @AVPreserve and Adjunct Professor for @NYUMIAP teaching digital preservation.” The intriguing tweet is below.

So it got me thinking, does the idea of a past tense for the word preserve legitimately exist? In a follow-up tweet she acknowledged that her context in writing this was the digital world, and I would broaden it out to the larger world of cultural heritage, but I’m not sure the question isn’t askable beyond those contexts of preservation.

Take as a comparison the act of painting a picture. During the activity or painting, a picture is being painted. Once the scene is done (with the cabin and the happy trees) the picture has been painted. The act of painting ceased because the goal was achieved and the picture is painted.

Does the act of preservation ever achieve its goal and therefore become a completed, past-tense activity, i.e. preserved? I have troubles imaging a context in which that could be the case. The only way it might make sense is with an unspoken qualifier of “preserved” (until we no longer need it, or resume preserving it).

I find it intriguing to think that we have all these preservation and conservation departments and professionals who work very hard at preserving things, but despite all that work, we have no preserved things.

(I acknowledge that this post is just a passing whim based on a tweet. I haven't spent a lot of time pondering it and it could very well fall apart under any critical review, but its been an interesting thought to have bounce around in my head for a little while.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Create = Destroy = Create = Destroy

Every act of creation is an act of destruction. Every act of destruction is an act of creation.

I saw being shared on Facebook the other day an article about an ancient Mayan pyramid in Belize (are there any non-ancient ones?) that was being destroyed for the purpose of a building new road. This story was being shared by preservation minded folks (and not road-builders) so I anticipate the intention behind sharing it was to share in and elicit moral outrage (the American’s favorite pastime.)

I don’t know if it was just a bit of a foul mood, or my inherited oppositionalism was popping out, but I was not morally outraged by the news. “What if they need a new road?” I thought. ”Plus, how many ancient Mayan pyramids do you really need?” (‘All of them’ is not a legitimate answer.)

I acknowledge these responses are rather flippant, but I’d like to think there is a sensibility behind them. A new road is not going to be built in Belize, or anywhere, without destroying something in the process. I grew up in the farming country of the Canadian prairies. I remember when work began to expand a 2 lane highway into a 4-lane highway – with a wide median. I remember thinking, and hearing others bemoan about how much farm land was being destroyed to build this highway. The thing is, 100 years earlier beautiful open prairie land was destroyed to create farmland. And before that prairies have been destroyed by fire and ice age glaciers. I’m sure plenty the Mayans did plenty of destroying in the building of their pyramids.

I guess a big question in the creation/destruction equation is whether the value of what is being created is greater than the value of what is being destroyed. Not surprisingly, lots of people will have lots of competing answers to that value equation. Is the fill for a new road in Belize more valuable than an ancient Mayan pyramid? I don’t know. A new road may enable the possibility the sharing of new cultural expressions that wouldn’t be shared and experienced without the road. Is a new Thomas Kinkade painting an increase of value over a blank canvas? I don’t know. But I do know that sometimes the old needs to go to make room for the new.

And so where does preservation fit into the Create = Destroy equation? I get the sense that some in the preservation field think they stand outside of the equation – their work is not to create, and definitely not to destroy anything, but to facilitate the ongoing existence of the items in their care. I am not of that opinion. In our preservation work we make decisions, and take actions which actively participate in creation and destruction. By interjecting ourselves and our intentions into the life of object, we destroy what was and create what wasn’t.

I’m still quite puzzled and unsure of what my professional relationship with destruction should be. In the western context I can’t imagine anyone being taken very seriously if they came forward proposing “I think we should destroy this piece of cultural heritage.” But I think there is a place for at least acknowledging that by doing a certain preservation act we are destroying something about the object we are attempting to preserve. By repairing a torn map, I am destroying its current state and the story its current state has to tell, and am creating its new state of being a repaired map.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer. I’m intrigued that a religious tradition has such a prominent place for the idea of destruction. Within this tradition, destruction is seen not as unfortunate and evil, but necessary and purifying. 

“All that has a beginning by necessity must have an end. In destruction, truly nothing is destroyed but the illusion of individuality.” 

“Destruction opens the path for a new creation of the universe, a new opportunity for the beauty and drama of universal illusion to unfold.” (both from )