Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reading "Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation"

I recently completed reading – or more accurately, engaging – the recently published book Ethics and CriticalThinking in Conservation edited by Pamela Hatchfield and published by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (The book only appears to be available from the AIC website.) Its contents are mostly versions of presentations given at the AIC annual meetings 2010 and 2011. My copy is now probably one of my most marked up books I own. That is a good sign.

My challenge is how to adequately portray the thoughts and responses this volume engendered for me. I began with my usual process of going back through the book and writing by hand in my notebook notes and quotes, however I’m half-way through the book and have eight pages of these. I would then need to go through all these and try to draft a reasonably literate blog post. That’s a lot of work and I’m not sure the end result would be of great value to many, or any.

Instead I’ll try for a more summary overview – knowing my tendency to get caught up in the particulars and details.

I will acknowledge my own opinions and tendencies before even entering into this book. I have a very conflicted relationship with discussions about ethics (and training) especially within the conservation profession. It feels to me like low-hanging fruit about which everyone can – and usually does – have passionate feelings about which we love to express, but about which few of us have real strong theoretical understandings. (I say “us” because I very much include myself – I’m pretty sure I got a C in Ethics in college.)

So, yes, I openly confess that I went into this book expecting interesting and engaging opinions – which I got – but not necessarily a very strong intellectual rigor undergirding those opinions. I was pleasantly surprised – mostly.

The essays in this book for the most part represent voices from the world of art conservation. I am most at home in the world of book conservation/library preservation. I am disappointed this voice is not included in the volume. Oh well.

In the first chapter “Conservation in the 21st Century: Will a 20th Century Code of Ethics Suffice?” I was ready to reply with a resounding “no”, but Barbara Appelbaum softened me to the idea. I’m still not a big Code of Ethics guy, but her essay portrayed these documents as a little more gracious and open than I would naturally see them.

I will say that her defining “cultural property” as things that are “at least in an ethical sense, the property of the whole human race” left me a little uncomfortable. Without being completely certain of this assessment, that property of the whole human race feels decidedly Western to me. Not that Western thinking is bad, but when it is assumed to be universal thinking – it is bad.

“Legacies from the Past: Previous Repairs” by Deborah Bede tackles the fun challenge of what to do with previous repairs. One thing I appreciated is her acknowledgement of the person of the conservator in these decisions “Previous repairs have a relationship to the conservator’s own work, and for this reason they may be sacrificed to a desire to have the results of the current treatment reflect favorably on the conservator’s skills.” (p. 12) I think this is a helpful acknowledgement of some of the very real, and very human factors that go into conservators’ decision-making.

When approaching an object that has had a previous repair treatment a big question that must be answered is to what extent has that repair become an integral part of what the object is now? Does the repair help open up, or create more meaning, or does it close things down and limit meaning creation? (to be all Muñoz Viñas)

For e.g.: my family has an old family hymnal that was once very crudely repaired with white cotton string. If this book was to be regularly used, the repair would be a failure, limiting meaning creation, and needing to be undone. As this book is not significant to its owners as a regularly consulted source of German hymn texts, but rather its significance is as an artifact of family history the repair is absolutely crucial to its meaning.

Chapter 3 is “To Treat or Not to Treat: Decision Making in Preparing Archives for Digitization.” I will note that in my book above this title I wrote the word “frustrating.” I found this essay very engaging – in that I wrote in the margins a lot, but I did not find it satisfying. Ultimately, I was very dissatisfied with the author’s understanding of what a digitized object is and its relationship to the thing digitized. My glib summary of her argument is the digitized version is not the same thing as the original, therefore it is not particularly useful, therefore keep devoting resources to conservation.

I think it is a worthwhile chapter to be included in this volume and I’m sure it expresses the opinions of many – especially in the archives world – I just disagree with most of what the author says, and some of how she says it.

Chapter 4 is “Resuscitating Bamiyan’s Buddhas: A Dispatch from Dresden, Two Lessons Learned” by James Janowski. Above this chapter I have scrawled in my barely legible pencil marks “love this.” In this chapter the author looks at the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden which was destroyed in WWII bombing and how that might inform approaching the Baminay Buddhas. I think the gist of this paper is caught up in the line “Conservation and restoration projects involve balancing various – and often competing – meanings and values.” (p. 50) And in the rest of the chapter Janowski eloquently discusses the various meanings and values of the Bamiyan Buddhas and what effect different activities might have on those meanings and values.

The Bamiyan Buddhas present such a wonderful current instance of hearing the various interests and concerns surrounding issues of restoration – or not. One thing I heard in this paper, that I had not heard before and is significant to my own thinking is that the locals of the Bamiyan valley want the Buddhas restored. I would be much less sympathetic to their restoration if it seemed to me to be an outside “professionally driven” activity.

In a closing postscript the author asks “If restoration is possible and we don’t restore, are we complicit? Are we party to the destruction?” (p. 73) My response is, if we are, is that necessarily a bad thing? Is restoration always good and destruction always bad? (but that’s just me.)

In chapter 5 “Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance” Jane Klinger discussed the logical, moral, and emotional character of conservators’ work with objects of trauma. The paper presented three conservation case studies, of a coat with “artificially created” bullet holes, of a Nazi era diary with later addition annotations, and with a fire-truck damaged in the world trade center attacks which still had dust on it.

Chapter 6 “Of Time and the Modalities of Conservation” by Frank Matero is about exactly what the title says it is about. Okay, it is the most philosophical of the chapters and a little more of a challenge to engage than some of the other chapters.

I’ll just highlight a few of the sentences that resonated with me.

“Implicit in conservation’s underlying principles is the notion that degredation is generally considered destructive or a negative condition that is detrimental to the visual and structural integrity of the work.” (p. 97)
“Original appearance, usually linked to artistic intent, is a transient condition that exists only briefly, if at all, after completion or delivery of the work.” (p. 98)
”What has been less thoroughly explored through frank and open conversation is the implicit intolerance for aging of industrial materials and forms such as concrete, steel, and plastics, as well as modernist art and architecture, the latter often restored to a state of original hyperreality in the name of artistic intent.” (p. 98)

“Classic Western conservation ideology has tended toward considering and admiring works of art and architecture as documents, thus placing increased importance on their material expression of authenticity.” (p. 99)

I think the main thing I appreciated from this chapter is captured in this final quote. “We preserve with intention, and it is that intention that needs to be continually examined and communicated as much as the work itself.” (p. 108) It is as important, and at this point probably more important for the conservator to be self-aware as it is to be aware of that which we are conserving. We should ask as many questions of our selves as we do of the objects we are working on.

In Chapter 7 Salavador Muñoz Viñas presents “The Frankenstein Syndrome” in which he discusses how in our conservation we often end up creating new creatures, which like Frankenstein’s creature are stitched together parts. As is stated in the abstract “This is not necessarily a bad thing, but remains a fact we conservators may tend to ignore or underestimate.” (p. 111)

In Chapter 8, “Restoration Ethics, Cleaning, and Perception: Case Studies from the Dutch Government Collection” the authors, W. Wei, Z. Benders, and E. Domelia Nieuvenhuis present two case studies of the decision making regarding conserving two items in their collection.

A sentence near the end of the chapter nicely summarized the function not only of this paper, but really of the whole volume.
“The object is to consider what the essence of the debate over restoration ethics is, and to (re)develop an awareness of what is happening during the decision-making process as a whole, and not just the technical aspects of the restoration.” (p. 136)

Just as the unexamined life is not worth living (or so I’ve been told) this volume’s essays demonstrates the value of a well-examined conservation life. Ethics and critical thinking are first about awareness.

Finally, thanks very much to AIC for publishing this volume.