A somewhat late report on the talks at the Wednesday morning General Sessions

[I apologize that the reports on the individual General Session talks are not longer and in greater depth. At the Wednesday morning sessions I had the dual role of blogger and time keeper for the speakers so my attention was split. I am delighted that another blogger has posted detailed reports on the talks by George Wheeler and Steven Weintraub. ]

George Wheeler opened the meeting with his talk, “Identity Crisis– Critical Identity: The Future of Conservation and the Role of AIC in its Development”. Wheeler’s premise was that conservation is an act of criticism and interpretation. Conservators must think about how they think and must make a connection between thought and action. He suggested that conservators look to other fields like literary criticism for models on how to do this. He spoke about four books and one journal that have helped him advance his theoretical thinking. The books are Cesare Brandi’s “Theory of Restoration (Enligh trans, 2005), Salvador Munoz-Vinas’ “Contemporary Conservation Theory” (2005), Paul Eggert’s “Securing the Past” (2009), and Alison Richmond and Alison Bracker’s “Conservation Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths” (2010), and the journal is “Future Anterior”.

Shelly Smith, the second speaker of the morning followed Wheeler with a very animated talk, “With Patience and Fortitude: Keeping Conservation Relevant in a Changing Institution”. Smith is Head of Conservation at the New York Public Library, an institution with a permanent collection comprised of enormous numbers of objects housed in multiple branches. In 2008, the Library changed its mission statement dropping conservation from its mission at the same time that it made plans to move its conservation department to a new, much larger custom designed laboratory offsite, and that it transferred the department from its technical services division (where it was sometimes looked at as a high end book repair shop) to the collection strategy department where the curatorial department resides. Confused by the mixed messages it had been given about its importance to the institution, the conservation department decided to become proactive rather than wait to be told what it should be in the new scheme of things. It has encouraged the Library think about the transportation of collection materials now that all items must be moved offsite for treatment. It is working to show how stewardship of the collection serves the Library’s new mission “to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge and strengthen communities”. One of its the first initiatives in that regard was the production of a five minute video, geared to school children, on the treatment of library materials which was incorporated into a recent Library exhibition.

Patricia Silence, speaking on behalf of the AIC Green Task Force (GTF) presented the last paper before the coffee break– “Challenges of Sustainable Conservation in the 21st Century”. The information she presented will be available in greater depth on the AIC website. Silence stated that the GTF’s aim is provide a methodology for reducing the individual conservator’s impact on the environment. It does not presume to tell anyone how he or she must work. Among the areas Silence spoke about were solvents, water purification systems, treatment options requiring less water, the use of reusable rather than disposable materials, recycling of materials, and travel. She discussed how the AIC itself is working to be more environmentally conscious including choosing meeting tote bags that were made from recycled materials. The GTF is collecting ideas on how to make conservation practice more sustainable. Silence asked that ideas and tips be sent to green@conservation-us.org

The first presentation in the second of the Wednesday morning sessions was Steven Weintruab’s “The Evolution of Environmental Standards: The Struggle to Quantify and Simplify Risk in a Complex World”. Weintraub dedicated his talk to Carolyn Rose and Toby Raphael. Weintraub’s premise was that environmental control is a complex issue and there is a danger when it is simplified to a list of specificiations. He noted that when Garry Thomson first published “The Museum Environment” he did not include a list of environmental specifications. Rather he gave explanations for why certain numbers or ranges of numbers made sense. Weintraub also noted that today conservation is one of a number of fields– the construction industry being another– that are tring to establish performance guidelines rather than prescriptive guidelines. Weintraub said that environmental control can be seen as a matter of risk and cost benefit analysis–i.e., what is the level of risk that an institution will tolerate and what will it cost to prevent a certain amount of damage. Weintraub spoke at length about lighting. He noted that in the old days lighting was simple– one used just enough light to see the object and no more– but that lighting has become more complex as we have come to understand that 50 lux of light directed at an object 8 hours a day for 90 days has a very different effect than 150 lux directed at an object 8 hours a day for 30 days. Weintraub ended his presentation with the reminder that we should be thinking about problem solving rather than about applying standards.

The next presentation, “p3: Pen, Preservation, Political– Establishing a Longitudinal Study for the Exhibition and Storage of Herblock Drawings”, was divided between Holly Huston Krueger and Fenella G. France, with Krueger providing background ablut the collection and France describing the longitudinal study of seven drawings from the collection. Krueger noted that when Herbert Block, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Herblock, died in 2001, he left his entire archive of 14,460 finished drawings and 50,000 rough sketches to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that some part of the collection be on display at all times. While Herblock was fairly consistent in his choice of materials throughout his career (1941- 2001)– graphite and India ink– in the 1960s, he did begin to try a variety of other materials of varying stabilities. The Library of Congress’s curators were concerned about how exhibition and storage conditions would affect the works, so Krueger and France developed a study that used selected drawings to provide baseline data on this. The works chosen for study were examined with hyperspectral imaging before, during, and after they went on display and will be studied while in storage. In addition, sample sheets were made using drawing materials taken from Herblock’s studio. They will be used in natural and accelerated aging tests.

Frank Matero presented the final paper of Wednesday’s General Sessions, “Conservation as Revitalization of Cairo’s al Darb al Ahmar”. Matero

began his talk by proposing that conservation is creative, progressive, and subversive– the last because it goes against the trend to replace anything old with something new. The conservation plan for the Darb al Ahmar district of Cairo, a district that was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1983, gave that socially and environmentally fragile area a means of revitalizing itself and its economy. The restoration of the crumbling district wall, parts of which were buried under rubble, took what had been a dangerous structure and turned it into a unifying element of the district. So much material was required for the repair of the wall that quarries were reopened to fill the need. Local workmen were hired and taught historic construction techniques providing meaningful employment. The revitalized district has seen an influx of visitors who provide an additional boost to the local economy.