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Innovative Conservation

Posted By Claire Schneider, Independent Curator, Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Claire Schneider, Independent Curator


The panel Innovative Conservation considered the ways technology is helping conservation and is itself challenged by it. Margaret Holben Ellis, a conservation professor at the Institute at NYU discussed the way controlled and repeated use of raking light photography can give in-depth information for works on paper. Lee Ann Daffner, a photo conservator at MoMA discussed an integrated team approach to conserving photographs that centers around a much more through documentation of the object itself, including raking light photographs, paper investigation, and makings notation. Significant energy is spent on recording the state of an object that is so fugitive before (or after) it changes.


Of most interest to me as a contemporary curator was the presentation on new media. Joanna Phillips, a new media conservator at the Guggenheim, gave a through and informative talk on how to best care for works in video, film, and slide projects/installations. Having worked with this information five years ago at the Albright-Knox Knox Art when it was just being created, I was eager to hear this presentation.


As is now common with conserving contemporary works of art, it is documenting the best "identity” of a work rather than a sense of absolute originality. How does one preserve the experience of walking into a Lucas Samaras room rather than necessarily the original glass. Expensive questionnaires filled out by the museum staff in tandem with the artist play a big part in this. For example, what makes one installation better than the next of the same work of art helps to understand the artist’s decision making. One must also decide what type of equipment is needed from non-dedicated (projector or monitor that can be used with many different works) and dedicated (equipment that is unique and irreplaceable—like slide projectors) to obsolete (box televisions). Of course, technology is always changing, so understanding and keeping on top of this when something goes from being non-dedicated to obsolete is key. I also appreciated the simple reminder to view the DVD or new media piece when it arrives, as no one in the copy chain probably has.


What was not discussed and was outside of the preview of the panel, but deserves a possible panel itself, is now to integrate the best practices in the field at museums with limited resources. At the Guggenheim, the Tate, or MoMA, they have dedicated conservators whose primary job is to care for just these matters. At much smaller institutions, this falls to a already over worked registrar and curator. In addition, finding the funds to pay for old soon-to-be-obsolete equipment and maintaining conversions of media are not as exciting as purchasing works of art. With a painting or sculpture, the conservation funds are also hard to find, but with media there is a much smaller window of opportunity. I have thought of ideas to help institutionalize such needs, such a creating a small endowment for media conservation that is instituted with each purchase as part of the each objects "purchase price.” I would love to hear what other colleagues have done with regards to tackling challenges in museums that do not have dedicated staff to handle all of the museum’s responsibilities. How are smaller museums creating the best practices in the field without a full time editor, conservator, development team, etc? How have they adapted the best practices in the field or innovated from where they stand.

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