ECPN Interviews: Electronic Media Conservation with Christine Frohnert

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese Painting conservation, and now we are focusing on Electronic Media Conservation (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which is characterized by artwork with durational elements, such as slide, film, and video, analog or born-digital materials, performance, light or kinetic art, sound or software-based art. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

In the first interviews for this series, we spoke with emerging conservators starting in the early stages of their careers working in time-based media, which included Alexandra Nichols, Nicholas Kaplan, Brian Castriota and Yasmin Desssem. In this interview, we hear from Christine Frohnert, a conservator who graduated in 2003 from the University of Arts in Berne, Switzerland, where she majored in the Conservation of Modern Materials and Media. Prior to establishing a private practice for Time-based Media (TBM) with colleague Reinhard Bek, Christine served as chief conservator at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany for twelve years and as chair of the AIC Electronic Media Group from 2008-2012. In 2012, she was named the inaugural Judith Praska Distinguished Visiting Professor in Conservation and Technical Studies at the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (CC/IFA/NYU), where she now serves as the Time-based Media Art Conservation Curriculum Development Program Coordinator.


Christine Frohnert and Reinhard Bek [Photo: Reinhard Bek]
Christine Frohnert and Reinhard Bek [Photo: Reinhard Bek]
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your current position.

Christine Frohnert (CF): I am a conservator of contemporary art with a specific focus on technology-based art. Reinhard Bek and I founded Bek & Frohnert LLC in NYC in 2012- a conservation studio in private practice specializing in the conservation of time-based media (TBM). We are both German, have been trained in Europe, worked in leading positions in museums, and have been involved in international research projects.

Bek and I focus on the conservation of artworks with a durational element in our practice—such as sound, moving image, performance, light, or movement, that unfolds to the viewer over time via slide, film, video, software, or the internet. Since the studio’s inauguration, we have responded to individual needs for both TBM conservation treatments and consulting requests. However, over the last several years, we have experienced a rising demand to serve as consultants for different U.S. institutions without time-based media conservators on staff, as well as for collectors and artists. As many TBM art collecting institutions are facing rapidly increasing needs to adequately acquire, preserve, exhibit and store TBM works, we are responding to this development and our work is more geared towards long-term collection care and the development of preservation plans, as well as education.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, what contributed to your decision to specialize in time-based media, and why has been your training pathway?

CF: As with most of my colleagues, I started conservation being exposed to more traditional media such as paintings and sculpture. About 20 years ago, I realized that technology-based artworks can be seriously harmed or lost without a new conservation specialty being established. I became fascinated with TBM, and I learned about the newly established program ‘Conservation of Modern Materials and Media’ at the University of Arts, Berne, Switzerland. I graduated from there in 2003.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

Christine Frohnert [Photo: Marlies Peller]
Christine Frohnert [Photo: Marlies Peller]
CF: A complex range of skill sets are needed, which should be solidly grounded in the conceptual framework of contemporary art conservation as a whole. It requires knowledge in electrics/electronics and programming, and an in-depth understanding of each media category, technology and its preservation, documentation and digital preservation needs. As our profession is highly collaborative by nature, soft skills are equally important to collaborate with all the stakeholders in the institutions involved, as well as with affiliated external professionals such as engineers, computer scientists, and technicians. This is important when defining, communicating, and verifying goals with vendors.

As many museums recently formed or are currently forming ‘Media Teams’ in their respective institutions to tackle their individual TBM collections needs, we have witnessed a rapidly increasing need for skilled labor, dedicated TBM lab space, equipment, and the trustworthy storage and management of huge amounts of born-digital or digitized artworks.

ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

CF: Currently our recent projects include consultation with several institutions to analyze their TBM collections and develop custom-designed conservation strategies according to their individual collections needs and skill sets of staff. These consultations may include surveys, assistance with media acquisitions, exhibitions and artwork documentation, storage, and migration. Bringing in external expertise often provides the bridge that many museums and their TBM stakeholders do not find in-house or do not have the capacity to coordinate. This work helps to identify and structure these needs more clearly and often provides the basis for institutional development and the implementation of larger collection care projects.

Recent and current treatment-based activities range from analyzing the ‘mechanical’ programming of a light-based work, the conservation of a seven channel-video wall from 1998 consisting of 207 Cathode Ray Tube monitors, digitization of analog video, and  the reverse engineering of custom-designed large format slide projectors, to name a few.

Cathode Ray Tube monitor [Photo: Marlies Peller
Cathode Ray Tube monitor [Photo: Marlies Peller]
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important need in your specialization?

CF: the most pressing need is education. Technology-based art is considered to be very sensitive to damage, loss, misinterpretation, and incorrect installation, due to its very specific and sensitive relationship to time, space, and concept. Damage or loss of a TBM work cannot be seen by simply examining the physical material and may not be immediately apparent unless the individual has received specialized training.

TBM conservation has been identified as a priority by many museums, collectors, and funding agencies. However, the educational opportunities are still limited, and there is currently no U.S. graduate program offering a degree in this specialty (but this will change soon!). As a result, a huge amount of our most recent cultural heritage is at risk, in an unknown condition, and/or not sufficiently integrated into museums’ missions of collecting, exhibition, conservation, research, and education.

However, thanks to the generous funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Conservation Center at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, started the TBM art conservation curriculum planning project in 2016.The new TBM specialization will be integrated within its current curriculum starting in fall 2018. This will be the first conservation program offering this specialty in the U.S. and the graduates will receive a dual degree: an MS in the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and an MA in the History of Art and Archaeology.

ECPN: Have you been involved in any advocacy, outreach, teaching or professional service roles in your specialization?

CF: During my time as EMG (Electronic Media Group) board Chair from 2008-2012, we received numerous request from the membership to offer continuing education opportunities, and in response EMG launched the conference series entitled TechFocus in 2010. The series is designed to provide hands-on guidance and systematic education on different media categories (TechFocus I: Caring for Video Art, Guggenheim Museum, NY, in 2010; TechFocus II: Caring for Film and Slide Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2012; TechFocus III: Caring for Software-based Art, Guggenheim Museum, NY, in 2015). In addition, the first periodical worldwide that focuses on TBM art conservation was launched by the EMG in 2012, The Electronic Media Review.

At the (CC/IFA/NYU) I have offered instruction in TBM conservation art in different capacities, including the course Art With A Plug: The Conservation of Artwork Containing Motion, Sound, Light, Moving Images and Interactivity (Fall 2012 and Spring 2015).

Several professional organizations and initiatives have created additional targeted educational opportunities and collaborations. However, despite all these good developments, further training is needed at the graduate level, as well as in continuing education for professionals, to address the fast-increasing demands of TBM conservation.

Under the leadership of Dr. Hannelore Roemich, Professor of Conservation Science and TBM program Director, I have also served as TBM Program Coordinator to assist in identifying skill sets and core competencies of TBM conservators that translate into the educational needs to develop a TBM curriculum. In the fall of 2016 the Conservation Center offered the course and public lecture series Topics in Time-based Media Art Conservation, which included ten lectures by leading art historians, artists, computer scientists, and conservators. These events were an important outreach component of the curriculum development project, and they created the opportunity to promote the field, foster the dialogue between TBM professionals, and build a community.

We are now organizing the upcoming symposium It’s About Time! Building a New Discipline: Time-based Media Art Conservation to be held in May 2018. The two-day symposium will provide a forum for educators, artists, art historians, museum curators and directors, collectors, gallerists, engineers, computer scientists, and conservators to promote TBM art conservation as a discipline on an international level and will conclude the TBM curriculum planning phase.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

Cathode Ray Tube monitor [Photo: Christine Frohnert]
Cathode Ray Tube monitor [Photo: Christine Frohnert]
CF: While I am not comfortable issuing general advice, I can say that I personally appreciate working with students and colleagues in our field, and that this has shaped and enriched my professional life. If you are a strong communicator who is interested in the intersection of art and technology, art conservation, and art history– and maybe you even have a background in one or more of the related media fields–why don’t you join the EMG sessions at the AIC annual meetings and/or attend the upcoming NYU symposium to engage with the TBM community and find out if this specialty may be just the right fit for you?

ECPN:  Please share any last thoughts or reflections.

CF: We currently see an extremely high demand for trained TBM conservators. This can be measured by the exponentially increasing job offers worldwide and the challenges many institutions face to find qualified candidates. So, it is safe to say that this is the best moment in time for becoming a TBM conservator in this country. If you are interested in pursuing a career in TBM conservation- check out the new TBM curriculum page at the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts at NYU.



ECPN Interviews: Electronic Media Conservation with Yasmin Dessem

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation, and now we are focusing on practitioners in AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which can include moving components, performance, light or sound elements, film and video, analog or born-digital materials. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

This is the third post from ECPN’s EMG blog series, for which we first interview Nick Kaplan and more recently, Alex Nichols. For our third interview from the EMG series, we spoke with Yasmin Dessem, currently Head of the Audiovisual Preservation Studio at UCLA Library where she serves as the technical lead as the library continues to develop its program of preservation, digitization and access of its moving image and sound holdings. Previously she managed archive deliverables for new feature releases at Paramount Pictures. She has experience working with a wide variety of moving image and sound formats, as well as pre-film animation devices, silent-era cameras, costumes and paper collections. Yasmin holds Master’s degrees in Art History and Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA.

Yasmin Dessem (left) and Allie Whalen (right) cleaning and relubricating a Betacam deck. [Photo: Walter Urie]
Yasmin Dessem (left) and Allie Whalen (right) cleaning and relubricating a Betacam deck. [Photo: Walter Urie]
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your current position.

Yasmin Dessem (YD): I oversee the preservation of moving image and recorded sound materials at the UCLA Library’s Preservation Department. For nearly 90 years, the UCLA Library has collected audiovisual materials with content such as home movies, oral histories, and radio broadcasts. Examples are home movies of Susan Sontag’s parents sailing to China in the 1920s and field interviews with Watts residents after the 1965 riots. Audiovisual preservation (AV) at the library is a relatively young unit—a dedicated AV preservationist first came on board in 2011. We offer a number of in-house digitization and preservation services and are currently focusing on increasing our capacity and launching a survey.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

YD: The 1996 re-release of the restored version of Vertigo first made me aware of film restoration and preservation as an actual practice. Later, as I was finishing my Masters in Art History at UCLA, I took a wonderful class on restoration, preservation, and conservation with Professor David A. Scott. The course covered the material care issues and decision-making ethics for a wide breadth of cultural heritage materials. The class struck a deep chord with me, but I was eager to graduate and start working. After graduation, I ended up working in the film industry for about six years. I was tracking down historic stock footage at one job when my mind circled back to the preservation field as I considered how the films were stored and made available. I had entertained the idea of potentially returning to graduate school to study art conservation some day, but around that time the idea of film preservation as a possible career path began to fully materialize for me. As a result, I began exploring potential graduate programs.

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue electronic media conservation?

YD: My longtime love for film and music intersected with my curiosity for all things historical and technology-related. These were topics that in one form or another always interested me, but I don’t think I had a full grasp on how to combine them meaningfully into a profession. Preservation was the missing key. My exposure to preservation and conservation while studying art history and my later experience working at film studios both helped direct me towards the specialization.

ECPN: What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

YD: I pursued my studies in the Moving Image Archive Studies (MIAS) Program at UCLA—which persists today as a Master of Library and Information Science (M.L.I.S.) with a Media Archival Studies specialization. While in the program, I completed internships with Universal Pictures and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and volunteered at the Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive at the University of Southern California. Throughout the two-year MIAS program, I also worked as a fellow at the Center for Primary Research and Training program at UCLA Library Special Collections, where I learned archival processing. My experiences weren’t limited to preserving moving image and sound media, but included paper-based collections, costumes, and film technology. After graduating I attended the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Film Restoration Summer School hosted by the Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

YD: Digital preservation will continue to be a key area of expertise that’s needed in museums and archives. Preserving the original source material and digitizing content is not enough. There are more resources than ever for strategies and tools for digital preservation, and it’s important to seek them out. Another valuable skill is developing a level of comfort with handling and understanding the unique characteristics of a wide variety of physical analog formats  such as film, videotape, audiotape, and grooved media (LP, 78s, lacquer discs, wax cylinders, etc.). Similarly, it’s helpful to have a familiarity with playback devices for these obsolete media formats (equipment like open-reel decks or video decks.) Lastly, metadata can be an unsung hero in media preservation. Often, we’re the first to see or hear a recording in decades, so capturing metadata around the point of transfer is critical. Metadata standards can be a rabbit hole of complexities, especially when it comes to describing audiovisual media, but understanding their application is an essential skill.

Lacquer disc cleaning and transfer workshop at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba in Havana, Cuba [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
Lacquer disc cleaning and transfer workshop at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba in Havana, Cuba [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

YD: We’re just wrapping up digitization of materials from the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company (GSM), an African American-owned and operated insurance firm established in Los Angeles in 1925 in response to discriminatory practices that restricted the ability of African American residents to purchase insurance. GSM operated for 85 years and their collection is a vibrant resource documenting Los Angeles and the empowerment of a community. We received grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation to support this work. The digitized collection is now available on Calisphere. We’ve just started a crowd sourcing project working with former GSM staffers to describe any unidentified content. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, hearing everyone’s stories and seeing how much it means to everyone involved to have this collection preserved and made available.

We’ve also been in preparation to launch a large-scale survey that will help us gather data on the Library’s audiovisual collections that can be used for long term-planning. Outside of UCLA, we’ve been involved with ongoing work with cultural heritage institutions in Cuba. Last February, I set up equipment and held a workshop on the digitization of radio transcription discs held at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba (IHC) in Havana. I’m heading back there next week to begin a project to transfer IHC’s open reel audio collections.

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

YD: It’s crucial to preserve the expertise related to the operation and repair of playback equipment. Playback equipment will become more and more difficult to source in the future. Engineers, whose entire careers are dedicated to the use and care of this equipment, are some of the best resources for this knowledge. Their knowledge is shared through conversation, YouTube videos, social media, and professional workshops. Documenting the skills required to handle, maintain, calibrate, and service this equipment in a more formalized way and sharing that knowledge widely will ensure that the preservationists can keep their equipment viable for longer.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

YD: Try everything. Media preservation requires a wide variety of skills from computer coding to soldering decades-old circuit boards. Depending on where your career takes you, it’s good to have at least a passing familiarity with the full range of skills you may need to call upon. Apply for internships or fellowships with organizations, like the National Digital Stewardship Residency. Volunteer at community-based archives that need help getting their collections in order. Join professional organizations, like the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) or the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Attend conferences like code4lib, the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG), or the Digital Asset Symposium (DAS). Network with engineers or preservation professionals to continue to grow your own expertise, but also share your own skills when you can. Collaboration and knowledge-sharing are a fundamental part of the profession.

Perforation repair of 16 mm film [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
Perforation repair of 16 mm film [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.

YD: One thing to be aware of, if you’re a woman in the field of audiovisual preservation, is that you may occasionally run into people who are surprised to see a woman working with technology (much less wielding a screwdriver!). This response persists to some degree despite the presence of many successful female professionals in the field. What’s encouraging, however, is seeing the growth of groups like the Women in Recorded Sound collective at ARSC providing support.

Audiovisual preservation is such a gratifying profession. Having the opportunity to make historic content available is incredibly meaningful work that I feel lucky to be a part of everyday. On an even more basic level, figuring out a new workflow or getting a piece of equipment to finally work is just so viscerally satisfying. I’m part of an amazing team whose passion, humor and willingness to try out new things inspires me every day and makes me feel so lucky to be doing this work.

ECPN Interviews: Electronic Media Conservation with Alexandra Nichols

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation, and now we are focusing on practitioners in AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which can include moving components, performance, light or sound elements, film and video, analog or born-digital materials. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

In our first EMG interview, we spoke with Nick Kaplan. Now for our second interview from the EMG series, we turn to with Alexandra Nichols, currently a Sherman Fairchild Foundation Fellow in the conservation of time-based media and installation art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 2016-2017, she was a Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow in Time-based Media Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She earned her Master’s of Art Conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (2016) where she concentrated on the conservation of modern and contemporary objects.

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Alexandra Nichols (AN): I received my Master’s of Conservation from Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2016, where I concentrated on the conservation of modern and contemporary objects. I recently completed a one-year fellowship as a Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow in Time-based Media Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where I was working under Joanna Phillips, the Guggenheim’s Senior Conservator of Time-based Media. Just a few weeks ago, I joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Sherman Fairchild Foundation Conservation Fellow, where I’ll be working with the Met’s collection of time-based media and installation art.  

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

AN: After obtaining my undergraduate degree in art history, I moved to London and landed a job as an executive assistant at the British Museum. While there, I visited the Hirayama Studio, the British Museum’s conservation lab dedicated to the care and treatment of East Asian paintings and works on paper. It’s a beautiful, peaceful room, with tatami mats and walls lined with brushes and different types of paper. I loved how the conservators could develop such a close, tactile relationship with the artworks, and how the treatments were carried out with respect for the cultures that created the works. This led me to seek out internships where I could gain experience in conservation.

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue electronic or time-based media conservation?

AN: I’m really fascinated by the wide range of materials and methods utilized by contemporary artists. Something I love about time-based media art is its complexity and variability. An artwork may have multiple channels of video, require a very specific placement in the gallery, or be shown differently based on the size or shape of the room.

My training is in objects conservation, focusing on the conservation of contemporary art. During the course of my graduate studies, none of the North American programs offered coursework in time-based media*. Thus, I was able to explore working with time-based media during my graduate internships at the Hirshhorn and the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that many of the time-based media pieces I’ve worked on incorporate sculptural elements, so my graduate training has been helpful in ways I didn’t expect. Learning how these objects should be placed in an installation and their relationship to electronic and audiovisual elements is really intriguing.

*The Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) at New York University is implementing a curriculum geared towards the conservation of time-based media, and is accepting applications this this year for Fall 2018 matriculation.

Alexandra and Contract Video Engineer Maurice Schechter conduct a quality check (QC) on a video file. [Photo: Joanna Phillips]
Alexandra and Contract Video Engineer Maurice Schechter conduct a quality check (QC) on a video file. [Photo: Joanna Phillips]
ECPN: What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

AN: I’ve always had an interest in computers and electronics. In middle school and high school, I learned the programming language C, built computers as a hobby, and took courses in video editing and digital photography as part of my undergraduate degree.

I’m originally from the Washington, DC area, and after deciding to pursue conservation, I completed pre-program internships and contracts at various museums in the Smithsonian system, including the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Museum Conservation Institute, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

In 2013, I began my graduate studies at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, where I specialized in the conservation of modern and contemporary objects. As a graduate student, I completed a summer internship at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, preparing time-based media works in their collection for the 2014 exhibition Days of Endless Time. During my third-year internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I collaborated with Kate Lewis and Amy Brost to treat a pearlescent bead-adorned cathode ray tube television set by Nam June Paik and Otto Piene.

Additionally, the chance to work with Joanna Phillips at the Guggenheim has been thrilling—there aren’t many opportunities to learn about time-based media conservation in the American graduate conservation programs, so emerging conservators must gain expertise through internships and fellowships. However, this is changing soon — The Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) at New York University is implementing a curriculum geared towards the conservation of time-based media, and is accepting applications this year for Fall 2018 matriculation (link: I’ll be utilizing the skills I’ve developed over the past year at my current fellowship working with the time-based media art collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

AN: Strong documentation skills are important in any specialization, but this is especially true for time-based media. The inherent variability of time-based media requires extensive research and documentation to ensure that it can be installed correctly in the future. It’s also important to know about the history of video production, including film history and the development of various formats. Foundational knowledge of video and other technologies is also crucial and has to be updated continuously, since technology is always evolving. Without this knowledge, media conservators cannot seek out and engage external specialists and vendors who can provide specific technical expertise

ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

AN: I am just getting started at The Met, but I am currently working with Nora Kennedy and Meredith Reiss to help document the 250 time-based media artworks in The Met’s collection. This includes updating questionnaires that are sent to artists during the acquisition process, which help us learn more about the production history and intended exhibition of the artwork, and researching past exhibitions to create retroactive iteration reports. The Met has had a Time-based Media Working Group for many years now, and I am looking forward to collaborating with its members as I conduct my research.

Image of a Skype interview with an artist, in which Alexandra and Contract Video Engineer Maurice Schechter discuss the audio channels of an artist-provided video file. [Photo: Alexandra Nichols]
Image of a Skype interview with an artist, in which Alexandra and Contract Video Engineer Maurice Schechter discuss the audio channels of an artist-provided video file. [Photo: Alexandra Nichols]
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

AN: I think the acquisition and display of virtual reality (VR) will pose a number of challenges for conservators in the coming years. Artists are increasingly experimenting with these types of works—Jordan Wolfson exhibited a VR work in the Whitney Biennial this year, for example—but as far as I know, no museums have acquired a VR piece yet. This technology is so new and is still being developed, and as a result, there’s so much potential for the obsolescence of file formats and hardware.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

AN: Try playing around with how to shoot and edit your own video in Final Cut Pro or Premiere! It will teach you about digital video formats and give you some insight into the artist’s process. And, don’t be afraid to reach out to conservators you admire to learn more about what they do!

ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.

AN: Supervised training under established media conservators is essential to the development of one’s skills as an emerging time-based media conservator. Fellowships and internships provide practical experience with real-life museum scenarios that is not possible to gain through readings or coursework. I am extremely grateful to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for providing me with opportunities to hone my expertise at the Guggenheim and The Met.


*Featured photograph: Alexandra examines a MiniDV tape containing an artwork while working at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. [Photo: Kris Mckay]


42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 30, “The Reconsideration of a Reattribution: Pierre-Edouard Baranowski attributed to Amedeo Modigliani” by Elise Effmann Clifford

Elise Effmann Clifford, Head of Paintings Conservation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), presented a case study dealing with the complex topic of evaluating a painting’s attribution, drawing on the research of psychologists to consider the biases at play when conservators and scholars approach such investigations. The artwork in question was a portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski, which entered the collection of the FAMSF as a painting by Amedeo Modigliani from 1918. After a demotion in attribution in the 1990s, the painting was subsequently reattributed to the artist in recent years. Effmann traced the research trails of both investigations in her talk, evaluating the reasoning of each that led to their opposing conclusions.

Portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski by Amedeo Modigliani, c1918, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  Photo:
Portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski by Amedeo Modigliani, c1918, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The first of these investigations began soon after the painting entered the FAMSF collection in the early 1980s, when scholars and dealers first raised doubts over the authenticity of the work. These were based on the existence of another portrait of Baranowski by Modigliani in the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury from 1937-1999, and referred to as the ex-Sainsbury painting in this talk. This work has airtight provenance and little doubt over authorship.  It is painted in a style typical of the artist. Two portraits of Baranowski were mentioned in the earliest catalog of Modigliani’s work, but this states both were on canvas, where the FAMSF painting is on hardboard. Only the ex-Sainsbury painting is mentioned in subsequent catalogs. The provenance of the FAMSF painting was unknown prior to 1953, the year the donor purchased the work. A report from the FAMSF conservation department notes an underlying composition of what appeared to by a figure similar to those in an early series by Modigliani. Early restoration treatments to address flaking paint were noted, as was an early campaign of overpaint in the face. Expert opinions were sought, and at least 7 records from dealers and scholars exist in the curatorial file stating they did not consider the painting to be by the artist, that something was not quite right. The FAMSF painting’s lack of technical similarities to the ex-Sainsbury painting, incomplete provenance, its absence in early catalogs of Modigliani, including the irrefutable Ambrogio Ceroni catalogue raisonne, and the frequency of Modigliani forgeries all contributed to a decision to deattribute the painting. This was made official after the painting was taken to England to compare to the ex-Sainsbury painting in 1994.
Prompted by questions raised by the family of the donor, a technical investigation of the painting began in 2011. Effmann found more information on the unusual underlying painting, finding other similar compositions by the artist, also on hardboard. She found other examples of similar paint application, and discussions with conservators and scholars revealed that the artist showed a great deal of variety in his technique. There were several fingerprints found in the paint, ignored in the earlier investigation. Effmann also traced the provenance almost back to the artist. Current experts were consulted in light of the new information, and the attribution to Modigliani was reinstated.
Effmann notes that in hindsight, the authenticity of the painting seemed obvious. She found herself reflecting on the trajectory of research and reasoning that led to the initial conclusion that the painting was a poor-quality copy, and the role that bias may have played. The idea that such research outcomes may be influenced by cognitive biases has never been examined in the context of conservation, so Effmann turned to psychology, where the topic has been a significant area of research since the 1970s. She discussed the implications of heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, we make constantly in order to quickly and efficiently process the vast amount of information we encounter. These heuristics usually serve us well, but cognitive psychologists have studied numerous ways in which they can lead to predictable errors or biases. Effmann identified several biases at play, including Attribute Substitution, when a difficult question is unconsciously replaced by a simpler one. Here, the question of ‘is this painting genuine?’ was replaced with ‘does this painting look like the other painting?’ Confirmation Bias (the tendency to favour information that agrees with preconceived hypotheses), Overconfidence Bias (overestimating the accuracy of one’s conclusion), and even Hindsight Bias (feeling as though one ‘knew it all along’) were all at play in the course of these events. (A good introduction into this topic is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
When we sit down at our microscopes, don our UV goggles, take endless notes, measurements, and photographs for documentation, it is easy to think we are looking at these artworks objectively. But the reality is: we’re not. Whether we’re embarking on a large-scale research project, or writing a condition report, we are drawing on previous experience and opinion which is necessary to guide us and make sense of the world around us efficiently, but can also lead us astray. Effmann says she’ll continue to research the topic of bias in the future, and I look forward to seeing what she finds. I know that I’ll be considering the reasons behind my reasoning much more carefully from now on.

42nd Annual Meeting – Joint Architecture and Objects Session, May 29, "The Cultural Production of Tourism at Lake Tahoe: Exploring How Cultural Heritage Preservation Is Impacted By Tourism," by Catherine Magee

This paper was a departure for a specialty group presentation in that it focused not on the conservation or technical study of material culture, but on the creation and consumption of cultural narratives and landscapes. Magee noted that conservation work informs and perpetuates stories about people, places, and things, and made the point that conservators are generally comfortable thinking about our work in the context of education, science, and academic scholarship. But she proposed the idea that we must also consider our role in the broader context of tourism, since the primary products of our work – conserved objects and sites – are most often intended for consumption by the general public, also known as tourists.
Her paper included a brief overview of tourism studies, examining the impact of tourism on different kinds of sustainability: economic, ecological, and cultural. The bulk of the paper was spent illustrating the latter point, looking at the ways tourism influences our perception of history and heritage by creating hybrid tourist/cultural heritage landscapes and influencing cultural memory.
Magee used two examples from her doctoral research, which focuses on the landscapes and material culture of the Washoe people in the Lake Tahoe area. The first example was Cave Rock, a pilgrimage site of major spiritual significance for the Washoe. The site was progressively destroyed by tourism, evolving from a culturally significant tourism site, to a pathway for a road, to a mecca for rock climbers. The second example focused on an iconic Washoe basket form, the degikup, and its most famous creator, Dat-So-La-lee. Magee examined the shared mythos of Dat-So-La-Lee and the degikup in detail, revealing the stories, and the basket form itself, to be products created for tourism.
The role of the conservator in shaping the destiny of a site like Cave Rock or the narrative surrounding iconic artifacts and artists like the degikup and Dat-So-La-Lee was not explicitly discussed. It’s not difficult, however, to imagine the complexity inherent in conservation decision-making for the kinds of tourist-hybridized sites, objects, and narratives explored in this paper. Magee argued that we conservators will discharge our responsibilities best if we develop a better awareness of our role in the cultural production of tourism. With that awareness, we can improve our agency in the process and generate better outcomes for sites, objects, and the communities we serve.

42nd Annual Meeting — Collection Care + HVAC Session, May 31, 2014, “Sustaining Collections: Putting Theory into Practice” with James Reilly, Lois Price, John Castle, Tom Sherwood, Don K. Rowe

I was tweeting up a storm during this session (#AICSF).  Why the fervor? There is nothing like hearing the conversion of smart professionals towards the gospel of collaboration, preservation management and the preservation environment.  A two-year intensive review of the air handling systems at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library (Delaware) generated insights into the management of the preservation environment that provided refreshing new data on how to approach mechanical renovation projects.  During the panel, each stakeholder told a part of a story that provided many “Ah Ha” moments. Here’s a sample of the tweets:
On the issue of getting all the stakeholders in the room:
I keep saying this: collaboration between facilities and conservation colleagues is a key for establishing set points.
Collections management and facilities management must be in handshake [pic of hands shaking].
On the implementation of nightly shut downs and seasonable shifts to manage the preservation environment and reduce the use of water and energy:
It’s not so simple to do shut downs and seasonably adjust set points.
Achilles heel of doing shut downs may be antiquated systems including [antiquated] monitoring.  Really, you cannot just shut off the furnace!
On the struggle to adequately understand the way that air handling systems may have evolved over time due to changes in personnel, changes in technology, and changes in the built environment:
Sounds like facilities engineers could take a page out of @conservators documentation strategies and requirements.  #asbuiltsnotdrawn
[A fireplace that had served as an air return decades ago was blocked during renovations wreaking havoc on the HVAC control]: Secret air return: non-working fireplace… blocked.
[Retired engineer returns to review the system and finds out that all of the built-in compensation for Gerry-rigged HVAC has been resolved]: “We always run two boilers!” “Let me tell you what: now we’re only running one.”
On the monitoring tools that are essential for understanding how your systems are running:
eClimate Notebook from IPI is such a great tool. Proud to plug it!
Winterthur reports a decrease in its energy costs, which include the reduction in the use of fresh water, and intends to repurpose energy costs into programming.  Now that’s sustainable!

42nd Annual Meeting, Collection Care Session, May 29, 2014, “The Future of Risk Assessment: Developing Tools for Collections Care Professionals” by Beth Nunan

Beth Nunan of the American Museum of Natural History described an almost 10-year approach to gather data across the many departments of the museum, using the cultural property risk assessment model (modified for AMNH). No one wants their risk assessment survey to sit on a shelf, and one thing is for certain: if the data cannot be compared across collections, the data will stay unused and uninterpreted. Even if the data is used, it can be called into question if the tools that captured and analyzed the information are perceived as biased.
Here are some of the takeaways from the AMNH approach:
1) The more complex the collection program at a museum, the more difficult it is to comprehensively apply and manage a risk assessment project. At the American Museum of Natural History there are millions of specimens ranging from vertebrates to botanical specimens and including libraries and archives.
2) There is a trend that AMNH is following about being able to compare risk assessment data with other like museums. Sharing risk assessment data and finding benchmarks across the museum field is becoming important; so risk assessment surveys should consider what will be the common data points shared with other museums, and what the definitions of those data points are.
3) Once tools are developed they should be shared with other professionals to amplify the use of the tools at other institutions. Groups like Collection Care Network and others are seeking to standardize templates and tools in order to facilitate comparison.
4) Partners are crucial to the success of risk assessments. Partners are frequently allied professionals, such as curators, librarians and archivists.
It’s clear that AMNH has many challenges in developing the tools it has used for risk assessment, but I expect we will hear much more from the conservators there as they promote their tools and lead other natural history museums towards this smart way of evaluating risks.

42 Annual Meeting-Joint Session: Paintings and Wooden Artifacts, May 31st, "Modern Materials and Practice in Gilding Conservation", Hubert Baija

Hubert Baija, Senior Conservator of Frames and Gilding, has been responsible for overseeing the conservation of the frame collection at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam since 1990. Numbering over 7000 frames that are now accessioned and inventoried as works of art in their own right, Baija has had the opportunity to treat frames of different styles and condition issues. During his presentation, he discussed three treatments. He emphasized the need for close study and observation of the original materials, understanding the appearance and intended effect created by the frames in their original lighting situations, and choosing reversible materials in a creative way. He noted that a treatment need not be overly involved to successfully reintegrate the gilding.
His first case study was the treatment of a Louis XVI oval frame (1777-89) that was original to the portrait it framed. The discussion addressed the past practice of covering worn gilding with bronze paint, that later had been retoned with a dark glue/pigment layer to match the discolored bronze. These layers significantly altered the intended appearance of the frame, by negating the play of dark, light, and reflectance across the complex surface. Baija demonstrated that by removing the glue and bronze paint layers (using simple solvent mixtures), only a minimal amount of inpainting was necessary to reintegrate the gilded surface. While the improvement to the frame was impressive, the appearance of the painting when displayed in the frame was also significantly improved by the intervention.
Baija’s second example demonstrated his skill as an artisan, his keen observation, and his determined investigation of a little know technique that had previously been overlooked. He stylistically identified a pair of auricular frames carved from lindenwood to c.1660-1665. Both frames had significant worm damage, had lost smaller portions of carved decoration, and were overpainted and overgilded. Only small areas of the original gilding remained intact–between 5 and 30%.
The original gilding was done using a type of mordant gilding that is not known from historical texts and has not been identified before. Using SEM-EDX imaging of cross sections, the technique was characterized: the bare wood was prepared for gilding using a thick glue layer (1 mm Th), followed by a pigmented emulsion layer, to which the gilding was applied.
Noting that the tradition of gilding in the Netherlands had been lost since the 1580s, and that more traditional (and stable) gilding techniques would not be reintroduced to the Netherlands until later in the 17th century by French Huguenots, Baija surmised that this unusual technique was in use—only in the Netherlands–for a relatively short period of time. After his initial characterization of the technique on these frames, he has since identified other examples on Dutch frames and furniture that are stylistically dated to 1650-1680. Because the technique was inherently unstable given the response of the thick glue layer to changes in humidity, many pieces gilded using this technique have subsequently been overgilded.
After cleaning the frames of non-original layers, the carved losses to the wood were reconstructed using paper mâché /methyl cellulose mixture, mixed with water. The material can be handled like clay to buildup the appropriate forms. The paper mâché shrinks slightly, allowing for application of Modostuc finishing layer. Because an isolating layer of Paraloid B-72 had been applied to the original wood surface, the paper mâché fill remains easily reversible. Shallower losses were also filled with Modostuc.
Most creative was Baija’s approach to inpainting to create the illusion of distressed gilding. Noting that the original thick glue layer would only be very slowly soluble in water, gouache was chosen to provide a brown base tone over areas of lost gilding and structural reconstruction. Islands of worn gilding were recreated using mica pigments mixed with Schminke watercolors, masterfully creating the illusion of a worn gilded surface. Final toning was done using ethanol soluble dyes in Mowilith 20. Toning could also be done using Gamblin Conservation Colors, PVA, etc. Coincidently, the dating of the frames was confirmed and the paintings and frames temporarily reunited, when an early 20thC. photograph of the frames paired with their original paintings was identified. The paintings are signed and dated 1661.
In his final example, Baija described an approach to reintegrating an area of loss in the gilding on a panel painting by Lorenzo Monaco, Stigmata of St Francis, c.1420. The area of damage was on a stepped join that was filled using Modostuc and prepared for gilding with acrylic bole from the Kolner system. Baija emphasized the importance of selecting a gold that was the correct color, but lighter in tone than the final appearance needed. He noted that any toning layers/coatings would take away from the intended appearance of the gilding—imitation of solid gold. By simply inscribing the cracks in the newly gilded loss, using horizontal lines to disrupt the vertical disruption of the loss, the gilding was effectively knocked back to the correct tone. Minor glazes to create the effect of dirt in the cracks were then applied.
Each of these treatments demonstrated issues that are common to conservation of gilded objects. Gilded surfaces are often overgilded or painted with bronze paint to recreate the impression of gold. Alternatively, gilded surfaces tend to be toned dark, either to reintegrate corroded bronze paint or to tone back gold that may seem too garish or is disrupted in other ways.
Baija’s approach is one that brings back the appreciation of frames as works of art, rather than as just accessories to paintings. It emphasizes the need to understand the original and aged appearance of the gilding, and to recover what is left of the original. His approach is one that acknowledges the frames—like objects and paintings–should be treated in reversible ways, using conservation materials distinguishable from the original materials. It thereby breaks from the traditional approach of regilding frames using traditional materials and techniques. He encourages the exploration of new materials, the use of reversible layering systems, and acknowledging the patina of time and use. An overall theme of the talk was one of reintegrating the gilding only to the level of the best-preserved area of original gilding.
For those interested in furthering their understanding of gilding and approaches to gilding restoration, Baija teaches two workshops at the Campbell Center in Mt Carroll, Illinois. “Traditional Gilding” and “Gilding Restoration” combine lecture and practical work in the studio. I attended both workshops over the last two summers, and as a result have improved my treatment approach for gilded frames. I highly recommend them.

42nd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, May 29, 2014, "Digital Rubbings. Monitoring Bookbindings with the Portable Mini-Dome (RICH)” by Lieve Watteeuw

In this talk, Lieve Watteeuw showed images produced by the Reflectance Imaging for Cultural Heritage (RICH) project and demonstrated the functionality of the Mini-Dome module. I was excited to see this presentation after reading advertisements for the “New Bownde” Conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year, in which the RICH project and Mini-Dome were featured. Fortunately, for those unable to attend the presentation, extensive documentation about the project is available online through the project’s webpage and blog.

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The Mini-Dome module

The Mini-Dome module is a small, hemispherical-shaped imaging device that is tethered to a laptop. The module creates dynamic digital images through polynomial texture mapping, a technique commonly referred to as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). This technique involves taking a series of images from a fixed camera position, while changing the angle of lighting, in order to reveal the surface of an object. The original dome was created in 2005 at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven for reading cuneiform tablets, but has since been used to image bindings, illumination, wax seals, cuir bouilli, and other cultural objects. The current module is equipped with a single 28 MP digital camera and 260 white LED lights to capture a total of 260 images in approximately four minutes. Watteeuw showed a video of the Mini-dome in action during her presentation, but readers can view a similar video here.
KU Leuven, Maurits Sabbe Library, second quarter 16th century, SPES Binding, panel stamp on brown calf leather.
Example of images and filters. KU Leuven, Maurits Sabbe Library, 16th century SPES Binding, panel stamp on brown calf leather.

After capture, Watteeuw described how the images are processed by software and interpreted by seven dynamic filters. She  demonstrated some of these filters, including sharpen, shading, generate models, line drawings, and sketch.  Using the mouse or interface buttons, the user can zoom in, drag the image, or change the direction of lighting in real-time. For those that would like to experience the software interface, a web viewer is available here. Watteeuw reports that the software suite can also export to 3D shaded or rendered modes.

Watteeuw’s presentation included a demonstration of a measurement tool built into the image processing software. The tool can be used to measure the distance between two points or generate a height map for a portion of the object. This blog post includes an image of a height map created on the blind-tooled surface of a leather binding. Watteeuw explained that by scaling the image, the measurements can be accurate to 10 microns.

Watteeuw’s presentation included several examples of how the Mini-Dome could be used to learn more about the production of a binding. Images of a late 15th century book of hours were manipulated with filters to show tool marks on the uncovered wooden boards, providing evidence of how the boards were shaped and the lacing of the sewing supports. A second example showed a 16th century book (pictured above and described here), in which the binder scored a vertical line in the leather to align a large, central impression. Watteeuw described instances in which previously unknown marks or designs were revealed by manipulating the filters or direction of the lighting, such as three leaves emerging from an emblem design, or shallow impressions from a decorative roll being more clearly defined. This tool could be quite useful for identifying individual finishing tools and documenting how they changed or became damaged over years of use.

In addition to leather bindings, Watteeuw shared images of Belgian damask silk, remains of a ribbon, and embroidered bindings from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Once again, the dynamic filters in the software suite were applied in order to enhance details of the objects. The “sketch” tool provides clear images of weaving and embroidery patterns and could be very useful to textile historians and conservators. The measurement tool could also be used to gather data on the thickness of threads or cord used to construct the object.

The Micro-Dome module fitted to a copy stand.

The RICH project will continue until 2015 and additional investigations are already underway. Watteeuw reports that the topographic data from an object is exportable into spreadsheet form. Engineers on the team are currently exporting high points of objects scanned to create a large data set for further analysis. Additional projects include the development of optical character recognition (OCR) for specific tool shapes or patterns on bindings. Testing is proceeding on a smaller “micro-dome” (pictured above) that  is constructed in two pieces so that it can be placed inside the opening of a book to capture images of the gutter or surface of a page. Watteeuw described a student research project currently in progress to measure sewing in manuscript textblocks.

Two questions were asked by audience members following the presentation. The first individual asked if a database of the existing images is available. Watteeuw answered that an open access database of all images captured would be ideal; however, since this is a research project using prototypes, the team is collaborating with institutions to link with existing databases. A second audience member asked if any attempts had been made to identify tools of various workshops. Watteeuw replied that a corpus was needed before any comparisons could be made.

Advanced imaging technologies, such as RTI, offer tremendous opportunities for the study of cultural objects and for digital libraries in general. The RICH project has produced a suite of tools that could be used by scholars and practicing conservators to gain a better understanding of an object’s composition and production. Wider use of devices such as the Mini-Dome in imaging collections of note and greater access to the software suite is required in order to exploit the full potential of the technology.

42nd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper, 42nd Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 29, "Treasure from the Bog: The Faddan More Psalter" by John Gillis

Faddan More Psalter
Faddan More Psalter

John shared with us his particular torment, a project that has occupied him daily for over six years, a highly deteriorated psalter uncovered from a peat bog in 2006. He still has his sense of humor, even though he freely admitted the project was pretty nightmarish at times. The psalter was uncovered from a commercial peat bog in July of 2006. Research suggests that the sphagnum moss in these bogs is what helps organic material survive so much better there than in regular soil, as the moss has a tanning effect on the organic material.
Once the psalter was uncovered, work stopped in order to rescue the fragile book. The psalter was covered in a wet layer of peat, then silicone Mylar and finally cellocast resin bandages were wrapped over the psalter to keep it wet until help arrived. This was exactly the right thing for the bog excavators to do. These men were not archaeologists or conservators themselves, but they knew what to do to keep it stable until conservators could arrive due to extensive museum outreach in the area. Local museums have provided a lot of training in order to help protect the wealth of archaeological materials located in Ireland’s bogs – most of which are commercially owned. Back at the lab in Dublin, the manuscript was kept wet and cold – at 40°C in a walk-in fridge. The media hyperbolically reported the discovery of the Psalter as being an apocalyptic omen due to a misidentification of one of the psalms. Really, psalters like this were used by monastic novices to learn their bible.
John’s first goal was to establish a collation map of the psalter. This usually easy task took two years due to the extensive trauma to the book. The psalter has five quires, 60 folios, no flyleaves, and it does not follow the insular nor the continental tradition of orienting the hair and flesh sides of the parchment folios. As John said, it seems to be “in the best Irish tradition, of completely ad hoc”.
Using a grid system, John mapped out each chunk of parchment before putting it through the drying process. He used a database to compile the veritable mountains of information the treatment of the Psalter generated. They cleaned the manuscript with water, removing thousands and thousands of seed pods with tweezers. One of the most challenging parts of the project was the “letter fishing” the group had to go through, to snag words and letters and letter-bits out of the bog. The tanning agents in the iron gall ink tanned the vellum so that frequently words or letters… or letter-parts would survive when the rest of the inner manuscript did not. In general, the inner portion of the manuscript was more likely to dissolve than the outer edges, which were exposed the tanning elements of the bog, would be preserved.
After cleaning, the Psalter page fragments underwent hyper spectral scanning, which John and his team undertook in an effort to read some of the illegible areas of the manuscript. After scanning, the fragments were ready to be dried.
The process that creates vellum creates a lot of tension in the material, and that tension shows itself most dramatically when drying wet vellum…. in intense shrinking and warp. John’s talk mostly focused on the de-watering of the vellum. Using some old historical vellum flyleaves the he had laying around the lab, John recreated putrefied vellum on which to test various drying methods. He and his crew kept track of changes in color, size and flexibility. After months of testing, they decided to proceed with a solvent bath of alcohol. They needed to restrain the vellum while it dried to minimize dimensional changes. The solvent exchange took place in a vacuum sealed bag that exerted even pressure against the entire fragment. This neatly solved the problem of restraining fragile vellum.
The National Museum of Ireland has a page devoted to the Faddan More Psalter project, with the full report on the psalter freely available.