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Innovative Conservation

Posted By Lisa Dent, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Columbus Museum of Art, Wednesday, June 08, 2011

AAMC 2011 Conference

Blog Post – Innovative Conservation

Lisa Dent, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Columbus Museum of Art



Often when working with living artists, the last thing anyone wants to think about is what objects will look like 100 years from now.  Now imagine that you need to also be responsible for the equipment necessary to see it.  This is exactly what Joanna Phillips, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim Museum, has been entrusted to do.  Monday afternoon’s panel, Innovative Conservation, included Phillips, Margaret Holben Ellis  and Lindsey Tyne from the Morgan Library & Museum, and Lee Ann Daffner from MoMA.  While Ellis, Tyne and Daffner focused on the incredible and user-friendly Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) system, that allows conservators to look at work on paper as never before, Phillips’ presentation focused on the care and maintenance of new media work.  As a curator of contemporary art, I can tell you that more and more artists, regardless of their primary media, experiment with time based projects.  In an effort to bring this work to our visitors, curators and conservators are needing to learn about things like hot pixels, 10 bit compressed files, and bad transfers.  Phillips did a beautiful job outlining some of the triumphs and pitfalls of her work.  Artists and dealers are not always as knowledgeable and careful about the media provided for our collections, and it is often up to Phillips to check the master and reassure the curators that what has been purchased is of the best quality available. 


One of the particularly helpful moments during Phillips’ presentation was her delineation between three categories of equipment that she believes every museum should have.


1)    Non-dedicated, variable equipment – anything that is exchangeable, such as a DVD player that can be connected to a variety of different monitors to play different films and videos.

2)    Dedicated equipment – Is there a part of the artwork that is unique and irreplaceable?  Phillips used a Nam June Paik work in the Guggenheim collection as an example.  Paik signed his name to an amplifier needed for the work, thus making this piece of equipment valuable and irreplaceable.

3)    Shared, obsolete equipment – There can be a variety of pieces of equipment that can be used in different works, but are no longer readily available in stores.  Examples in this category include slide projectors, 16 mm projectors or CRT monitors.


I had a very basic question, which Phillips kindly answered quickly and succinctly.  Once a time based work has been acquired, it is important to receive it in a variety of formats and save it in several places.  Getting a 10 bit compressed video file is your best bet for assuring quality.  Then be sure it is stored as an uncompressed file on a server with limited access.  This is in addition to the DVD or Quicktime file that you make for viewing purposes.


What can I say, this was an incredibly helpful panel and will be key to how I help to guide our registrars towards the care and maintenance of our new media works for years to come.

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