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The Cosmic Union of Curatorial Practice and Conservation

Posted By Allysa Browne Peyton, Curatorial Associate for Asian Art, Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Cosmic Union of Curatorial Practice and Conservation


The AAMC’s annual meeting, and especially the keynote address, was in a word invigorating.  Addressing a sea of curators at every stage of career development were words of not only encouragement, but words of, well, heated passion. As in, curators (the words gods and goddesses were used) charged with stewards of visual culture are sent off flaming into the museum world bringing with them a renewed light to share with others. It was big. Paola Antonelli spoke of curators as geisha – that we gracefully interpret a culture of abundance to a society that is already visually over-stimulated. As a group, we were reminded of our mission by Phillipe de Montebello à la Cicero: DOCERE (to delight) DELECTARE (to delight) and MOVERE (to move).  I could feel myself holding my breath with excitement.

But here’s the point:  In order to de-mystify what we are presenting, there is a need for balance. For all of the glamour of the cocktail party, there must be the sweat from the stacks. The panel on innovative conservation offered this yang to the yin, the consort to the god…the cosmic union of curatorial practice and conservation.  As Kwame Anthony Appiah noted in another panel, there is always a financial challenge to doing anything worthwhile and that there is always tension between preservation and presentation.  Two always is a subtle way of saying it is really hard to strike a balance. Tools in the arsenal: Katharine DeShaw tips for donor cultivation and an uber-team of conservation counterparts.


Maryan Ainsworth, Lee Ann Daffner, Margaret Holben Ellis, and Joanna Phillips gave insights in new technology to help evaluate acquisitions in terms of provenance and attribution, to better evaluate and care for our collections, and to evaluate aesthetic excellence.  A system described for this material-based approach was RTI (reflective transformation imaging) a.k.a. polynomial texture mapping: a blended highlight map which allows us to see texture, more precise conditioning of works on paper, and a more accurate identification of materials and techniques. While I couldn’t attempt to define what specular enhancement or image unsharp masking is, I do understand when RTI is described as a process which offers  imaging that is "raw and alive” – giving the integrated curatorial and conservation team the ability to qualify and quantify the indescribable.


Joanna Phillips focused on conservation of time-based media – the most risky, high maintenance artworks ranging from video, slides, film to sculpture. We learned about hot pixels, that some equipment is only purchased for an acquisition if it is obsolete or rare, and as a rule that Joanna spends many, many hours here at the ‘playback station’:


I thought about issues that I had never considered like condition reporting a slide projector, how the media conservator documents and considers the artists’ preferences or intent, and how pivotal quality control is before a time-based media work enters a collection.

All of the speakers advocated a multi-disciplinary approach to the field. Curatorial scholars, conservation scientists, and technical art historians happily melded into a tasty soup of cosmic union. Each ingredient will compliment the other and amount to something greater than the sum of its parts. Adding substance to sexy may turn out to be sexier than ever before thought possible.

More about RTI technology: 

More about new media conservation:


Allysa Browne Peyton
Curatorial Associate for Asian Art
Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art

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Tags:  RTI 

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