Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Conference – Objects Session, May 17, "Facing the Past for Action in the Future: Cultural Survival in Native America", by Kelly McHugh

The official theme of the joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Conference was “Emergency! Preparing for Disasters and Confronting the Unexpected in Conservation”, however, a series of talks diverged from the theme, discussing instead the role of the conservation profession in supporting social inequality and established colonial structures: Kelly McHugh’s was one such dark horse.
She began her talk with the disclaimer that her talk would contain much self-reflection. This proved a successful approach to a difficult topic, the marginalization of Native Americans within the United States of America (Canada’s crimes against First Nations groups were not addressed). By expressing her position within the framework of her own experiences, McHugh made her message approachable, sharing blame in the problems she brought to light. As McHugh noted, conversations on reconciliation can be difficult as they bring up paralyzing feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and guilt. She stressed that in addressing injustices, it may feel to Americans that the legitimacy of the origin myth of the USA as the Land of the Free is undermined – an idea expressed by Walter Echo-Hawk in his book, “In the Light of Justice”.

Chota Memorial. From National Geographic’s East Tennessee River Vallery Geotourism MapGuide

McHugh began by discussing Tellico Lake, TN where she and her family vacation. Until recently she was unaware that the lake, created as a result of the construction of the Tellico dam, covered two sacred Cherokee sites, Chota and Tanasi. The construction of the dam, which was delayed for years due to an endangered fish called the snail darter, was not hindered at all by the sacred status of the sites, which were later commemorated through the naming of golf courses and the creation of a lakeside memorial. Tying her talk into the overarching conference theme, McHugh pointed to the irony of those responsible memorializing destroyed sites lost through an intentional, man-made disaster. McHugh went on to emphasize the significance of her own ignorance of Chota and Tanasi as symptomatic of the societal blindness to aboriginal issues, which was particularly uncomfortable for her after 19 years of employment at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Tanasi Memorial, erected in 1989. From National Geographic’s East Tennessee River Valley Geotourism MapGuide.

She then directed the audience’s attention to other sacred Native sites harmed in the interest of industry and tourism. She addressed the inadequacies of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, even noting that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 fails to give First Nations tribes the right to completely barre all disturbance of sacred sites. She highlighted one location successfully protected from development for an army training facility, Medicine Bluff, which was done so by culturally educating the judge in the case, by inviting him to the site and having him walk with a religious leader. She also cited current threats to Native American heritage, notably encroaching sea levels from climate, requiring the displacement of tribal villages.
The Inupiat village of Kivalina, Alaska, is threatened by coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.

Stressing the inherent connection between human rights and authority over cultural patrimony, McHugh showed the importance of generating awareness of these issues all the while not separating Native history from our own. McHugh called for true collaboration between museums and native communities, noting that NMAI was getting closer to such a relationship and highlighting other significant organizations like the School for Advanced Research and the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. She suggested the use of listening sessions and the creation of collaborative collections care initiatives to allow for sharing in the responsibilities of problem-solving on equal ground.
Overall, the message McHugh delivered was an important one – that as conservators we need to do more to recognize and respect the essential connection between cultural heritage and community, that we cannot ignore the human element in favour of remaining a neutral observer to the struggle for recognition of human rights for First Nations peoples.  There is no neutral position, inaction and ignorance only support the inequality founded on colonialism and racism. McHugh gave an important call to action: true collaboration or bust!

41st Annual Meeting-Electronic Media Session, May 31, "Technical Documentation of Source Code at the Museum of Modern Art" by Deena Engel and Glenn Wharton

Glenn Wharton began with an overview of the conservation of electronic media at the Museum of  Modern Art (MoMA). When he set up the Media Conservation program at MoMA in 2005, there were over 2,000 media objects, mostly analog video, and only 20 software objects. The main focus of the program was digitizing analog video and audio tapes. Wharton was a strong advocate for the involvement of IT experts from the very beginning of the process. Over time, they developed a working group representing all 7 curatorial departments, collaborating with IT and artists to assess, document, and manage electronic media collections.
Wharton described the risk assessment approach that MoMA has developed for stewardship of its collections, which includes evaluation of software dependency and operating system dependency for digital objects.  They have increased the involvement of technical experts, and they have collaborated with Howard Besser and moving image archivists.
The presenters chose to focus on project design and objectives; they plan to publish their findings in the near future. Glenn Wharton described the three case study artworks: Thinking Machine 4, Shadow Monsters, and 33 Questions per Minute. He explained how he collaborated with NYU computer science professor Deena Engel to harness the power of a group of college undergraduate students to provide basic research into source code documentation. Thinking Machine 4 and Shadow Monsters were both written in Processing, an open source programming language based on Java. On the other hand, 33 Questions per Minute was written in Delphi, derived from PASCAL; Delphi is not very popular in the US, so the students where challenged to learn an unfamiliar language.
Engel explained that source code can be understood by anyone who knows the language, just as one might read and comprehend a foreign language. She discussed the need for software maintenance that is common across various types of industries, not unique to software-based art projects. Software maintenance is needed when the hardware is altered,  the operating system is changed, or the programming language is updated. She also explained four types of code documentation: annotation (comments) in the source code, narratives, visuals, and Unified Modeling Language (UML) diagrams.
Engel discussed the ways that the source code affects the output or the user experience and the need to capture the essential elements of presentation in artwork, which are unique to artistic software. In 33 Questions per Minute, the system configuration includes a language setting with options for English, German, or Spanish. Some functions were operating system-specific, such as the Mac-Unix scripts that allow the interactive artwork Shadow Monsters to reboot if overloaded by a rambunctious school group flooding the gallery with lots of moving shadows. Source code specified aesthetic components such as color, speed, and randomization for all of the case study artworks.
One interesting discovery was the amount of code that was “commented out.” Similar to  studies, underdrawings, or early states of a print, there were areas of code that had been deactivated without being deleted, and these could be examined as evidence of the artist’s working methods.
Engel concluded by mentioning that the field of reproducibility in scientific research is also involved with documenting and preserving source code, in order to replicate data-heavy scientific experiments. Of course, they are more concerned with handling very large data sets, while museums are more concerned with replicating the look and feel of the user experience. Source code documentation will be one more tool to inform conservation decisions, complimenting the artist interview and other documentation of software-based art.
Audience members asked several questions regarding intellectual property issues, especially if the artists were using proprietary software rather than open-source software.   There were also questions raised about artists who were reluctant to share code. Glenn Wharton explained that MoMA is trying to acquire code at the same time that the artwork is acquired. They can offer the option of a sort of embargo or source code “escrow” where the source code would be preserved but not accessed until some time in the future.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 9 “The Conservation of the Jefferson Bible at the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution”

The Conservation of the Jefferson Bible at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.  Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Paper Conservator, and Emily S. Rainwater, Post Graduate Fellow, NMAH; Laura A. Bedford, Assistant Book Conservator, NEDCC.

The Jefferson Bible is an assemblage of texts from the New Testament created by Thomas Jefferson, and bound into a book by Frederick Mayo. Jefferson titled this work The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  According to the presenters, it has been in heavy demand and exhibited frequently during its lifetime.

This project was a team effort between conservators and curators. Before beginning treatment,  the conservators in consultation with the curators, thoroughly analyzed  its condition, materials and sewing structure, and together developed a plan for treatment and materials testing. As  the folios were separated conservators and curators examined each one before it was professionally photographed, and together decided where paper repairs should occur.

The treatment goal was to not improve the appearance of the folios (through flattening, for example) or to change Jefferson’s work.  Aqueous treatment and humidification were deemed too risky. Treatment consisted of removal of the textblock from the binding, replacement of the stubs, page repair, resewing and replacement into the original binding. The original endbands and their tie-downs were retained.

It is to the Smithsonian’s (and the conservators’) credit that they were willing to share the treatment of this artifact. The Smithsonian produced a facsimile and documentary, both for sale from the Smithsonian Store, and digital images are available online. An exhibition was installed in 2011, and the conservators allowed tours of the lab while work continued.

The UVA magazine has an illustrated description of the treatment:

The presentation also included a description of the conservation of 2 of the source books for Jefferson’s work. It was exciting to learn more about the life-cycle of this unique work.


AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 9 “Exploring New Frontiers: Outreach and collaboration across institutional boundaries with the treatment of De Brys’ Collection of Voyages”

Exploring New Frontiers: Outreach and Collaboration across Institutional Boundaries with the Treatment of de Brys’ Collection of Voyages. Erin Hammeke, Conservator for Special Collections, Duke University Libraries.

This presentation addressed the challenge often faced by book conservators: do we treat the item for maximum use by scholars even if that means some of the components of the current binding might be lost; or, do we retain everything that’s “original” even if some of these components might be harming the text? The conservation staff and their curatorial partners at Duke chose the first option in the treatment of 3 volumes of de Brys’ Voyages. These volumes were pulled, washed, resewn on tapes for maximum opening, and rebound in full calf bindings. The half leather bindings on 2 of the volumes were removed and stored in the new clamshell boxes constructed for each volume.

This treatment provided an opportunity to not only maximize the durability of these bindings for use by scholars, but to also make digital copies of the text, thereby making these materials even more accessible.
I have to question the decision made by the conservation and curatorial team involving an incomplete map in one of the volumes. Although a complete copy of the map was obtained from UNC and used for the placement of a fragment found tucked into the volume, the missing area was left blank. Since the goal was to make the volumes useful to scholars, why not take this opportunity to make the volume complete? This question was posed during the question and answer portion of the presentation, and the answer seemed to relate to the size or “newness” of the replacement portion. It seems to me that there were several options here. Since the book was resewn, the copy of the map could have been inserted after the original, incomplete map. Or, it could have been included with the other material in the clamshell box. The digital copy could have at least been made complete, with a note to that effect somewhere in the restored volume (perhaps it was).
The conservation of the de Brys’ Voyages coincided with a symposium of de Brys scholars that was held at Duke. The conservator (Ms. Hammeke) made the most of this opportunity by meeting with the scholars and discussing her treatment with them. She also enhanced her treatment documentation with short videos.

Generally, the information contained deep in the binding that is discovered by conservators remains hidden from scholars and curators, but this project is an excellent model of how collaboration between conservators, curators, and scholars can allow that knowledge to be shared.