Conservators “Keep Austin Weird”-WAAC Annual Meeting, Final Day

The final day of talks at the WAAC Annual Meeting did not disappoint. There was another great group of talks in the half day session that included practical information as well as papers that discussed larger ethical issues presented during certain conservation approaches.

A talk by Wyndell Faulk (Concept to Fabrication: The Deniro Collection, “Men of Honor” Deep Dive Suit Stabilization Device), a preparator at the Harry Ransom Center, explained a system he developed for displaying a very heavy canvas and rubber dive suit used in the movie “Men of Honor”. As we learned that morning, Robert De Niro donated a collection of papers, movie props, films and costumes (about 1300 items) documenting his film career. This dive suit was one of those items and Wyndell had to prepare a mount to be able to hang the suit on the wall to display it. He created an acrylic support, like a hanger, which he padded, that would fit into the neck and shoulders of the suit. The support could then be tied to the wall to display it. This was a great example of how his creativity transformed the idea of a hanger into a “deep dive suit stabilization device” to safely display this object.

Later that morning, a talk by Albrecht Gumlich (Juggling “Material Time Bombs”-Dealing with Ephemeral, Mixed Media Items from Special Collections at the Getty Research Institute), objects conservator at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), made us think about how we conserve mixed media, contemporary art made of materials that decay due to inherent vices in a collection that is accessible to researchers. Items in the collection are made from plastics that degrade, metals that corrode, have items that contain food or other organic materials that decompose. Albrecht talked about the struggle between wanting to preserve these items, knowing that the best way to do that is to keep them for example in cold storage, but needing to step back to allow researchers to look at the materials because the items are in a research collection. In order to help monitor the condition of these pieces during their life in the research collection, a system of periodic checks of the more sensitive materials, or those more likely to decay, has been implemented. Condition sheets have been made to record the condition of all the components of these “time bombs” and indicate materials that may need more frequent examination. Other staff members at the GRI, such as registrars and interns are trained to identify and record any potentially problematic items so that several people are involved in the documentation. The information will be incorporated into the GRI’s collection database and will be shared with other institutions that have similar items in their collection. Looking at the items Albrecht was discussing in his talk, it certainly made me think about how difficult it must be to preserve these ephemeral works of art that could degrade at any moment. It also brought up a lot of questions about what should we really be trying to preserve with contemporary art. Should the focus be on preserving the physical items or should we, as conservators, accept that things decay and we cannot preserve them? Should the focus be on preserving the artist’s intent, even if it means replacing materials or being able to only keep a photo of an art object and not the object itself? These are larger questions that conservators who deal with these types of collections must often ask themselves, and it definitely creates a lot of interesting ethical discussions.

Looking back at the conference, I certainly enjoyed listening to such a broad range of talks and discussing many conservation issues with colleagues. It was a great first WAAC conference for me and I can’t wait for next year’s conference in Palm Springs. And as for the quote in the title, “Keep Austin Weird” is something you hear or see all over the city. Coined about a decade ago, it celebrates the uniqueness, and sometimes eccentricities, of the city and local businesses. Looking at the range of papers presented over the course of the last 4 days, you can certainly say that conservators are working on some very unique materials. By presenting our work at the conference, we, in our own way, certainly kept Austin weird.