From the Board President


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COVID-19 and Opportunities for Outreach

The current COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on our critical role in cultural heritage preservation. In an effort to keep audiences engaged at a time of prolonged closure and staff absences, conservators have been called upon to apply two specific skills:

  1. We are actively implementing the principles of preventive conservation in order to maintain the well-being of collections
  2. We are working with educators and curators to narrate virtual and in-depth stories about works that have special meaning and significance to an excluded public eager for personal connections

Closer to home, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a reckoning not only with what objects the American people find to be of most interest, but, more critically, what they hold to be most dear. While sheltering in place, the familiar––a handmade quilt or family photograph––becomes precious and thereby deserving of preservation.

In the face of an inward turning and receptive populace, it is propitious that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has initiated A More Perfect Union in honor of America’s 250th anniversary. Even more prescient, the NEH has partnered with FAIC to host Held in Trust, a national convocation to be held in the fall of 2021. The goal of Held in Trust is to identify and prioritize the steps needed for “the preservation of cultural resources across the nation for all people, of all ages, from all places, for all time” as stated by our keynote speaker for our 2020 annual meeting, Jon Parrish Peede.

Two aspects of the themes of A More Perfect Union and Held in Trust underscore our nation’s reliance upon conservators:

  • You will note that “a more perfect union,” taken from the Preamble to our Constitution, is preceded by the words “to form.” I would argue that it is the conservators who will help “to form” a modern pluralistic society by preserving the things it holds most dear.
  • When something valuable is “held in trust,” it is protected by a group of people on behalf of other people. In this sense, trust is not a sentiment; it is an entity. Hence, conservators are the trustees of cultural heritage and are responsible for its protection.

John Parrish Peede’s keynote address on May 21, 2020, reaffirmed the central place of conservators in the challenge to preserve and protect everyone’s cultural heritage. Since the understanding of cultural heritage ultimately relies upon physical works, Chairman Peede attested that “preservation is literally the core activity of our agency.” As a case study, he described the power of a still-unopened letter to Kurt Vonnegut from his father during WWII. Further elaborating, he observed that writing letters is an act of faith and optimism as is being a grant-maker. Conservators, as keepers of stories, are optimists also.

Chairman Peede went on to describe two instances of how seemingly humble objects can tie together places and times and thus enhance our understanding of their value. One was the adoption and transportation of cotton gin metal ball bearings in Mississippi for playing marbles in Chicago; the other was the discovery that five perfectly circular stones found in an Ohio Indian site were devices used for tightening drumheads. The acquisition of information in both instances resulted from community-based dialogue, not traditional academic learning. The NEH is eager to unite traditional knowledge pathways and critical information belonging to “culture-holders.” He closed by wryly observing that all these objects could fit into his pocket.

This is truly an opportune time to plant and nurture a pervasive spirit of preservation among Americans.

Margaret Holben Ellis, AIC Board President, mhe1@nyu.edu


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