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.

45th Annual Meeting, Pre-Meeting Session, May 29, “CAP, MAP, and StEPS: Collections Care Opportunities for Small Museums.”

To kick off this pre-meeting session, Chris Reich, Chief Administrator, Office of Museum Services, Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), provided an overview of IMLS, which was founded in 1996, previously called IMS (Institute of Museum Services), which was founded in 1976.

The IMLS is an independent agency, and the Director is appointed by the president. The Board is a congressional appointed board of museum and library professionals. IMLS is funded through annual congressional appropriations; primary source of federal support for the nationals 123K; libraries and 35K museums ; most well-known for grants; also conducts research and produces publications.

Programs that IMLS sponsors: Museums for America (Museums Empowered), Native American/ Native Hawaiian Museum Services, Museum Grants for African-American History and Culture, National Leadership Grants for Museums – fund projects that benefit multiple museums, help to advance the profession, and create models for other museums to use.

IMLS also sponsors the Museum Assessment Program (MAP), Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPS), and the Collections Assessment Program (CAP), which are funded through cooperative agreements. Grant funds go directly to the administration that administers the grants (FAIC for CAP, AAM – American Alliance of Museums – for MAP, and AASLH – American Association for State and Local History – for StEPS).

I snapped a picture of this slide that demonstrates the purpose of each program:

Why are assessments important for cultural institutions?

  • Aimed at small and medium sized museums – entry point to become poised to apply for state and federal grants
  • Improve professional practices
  • Awareness of national standards
  • Re-energize boards and staff
  • Working together
  • Establish shared goals
  • Foundation for planning
  • Building community credibility and support
  • Non-judgmental support – these assessments are collegial visits – helping that institution examine its operations and practices to help them become more professional

First, Danyelle Rickard, Museum Assessment Program Officer, American Alliance of Museums, spoke about the MAP program. It’s been around for 36 years, and operates as a self-assessment program, coupled with a site visit and peer review, and then a final report. The process has three different types of assessments available: organizational, collections stewardship, or community engagement. To be eligible for a MAP, you need to have/be the following:

  • One professional staff for FTE
  • Nonprofit – private or public
  • Located in a US state or territory
  • Open at least 90 days/ year – special events and outreach count
  • Cares for/ owns/ uses tangible objects

Costs for the MAP depend on the operating budget of the museum:

For the fee, you get a Self-Study Workbook, focused on the assessment type requested, and a Peer Review Report. The Report provides an honest snapshot at the time of the visit, manageable recommendations and resources, and also highlights good (and not-so-good) processes.

Who are the AAM Peer Reviewers?

  • Volunteers (expenses and honorarium provided)
  • Familiar with MAP and Accreditation
  • Review materials
  • Conduct site visits
  • Write reports
  • 5 years experience in decision-making roles
  • Knowledgeable about standards, ethics, practices, operations
  • Engaged with the museum community
  • Good communicators
  • Critical thinkers
  • Committed to the highest ethical standards and level of professionalism

Benefits to being a peer reviewer: learning experience, networking opportunities, giving back to the profession, and a source of professional development.

Time and Cost: 40-60 hours per assignment; AAM reimburses expenses; $400 honorarium; keep online profile and availability up-to-date; about 1500 volunteers currently

Types of Museums: children’s museums, university museums, specialized museums, zoo and aquariums, science centers, nature centers, botanical gardens, art, and history – MAP is specifically looking for people with expertise in these types of museums as volunteers.

Then, Tiffani Emig, CAP Program Coordinator, talked about the CAP Program, which is a program that provides small to mid-sized museums the opportunity to have a conservator and an architectural conservator come to their museum to perform an assessment of their buildings and operations as well as their collections care methods. The museum receives a report that is a high-level, well-rounded view of collections care for the museum.

How can CAP help museums?

  • Provides a path forward; “here are the things that are the most important things to do to help you best care for your collections.”
  • Shows evidence and support of need for grant funding
  • Outside perspective – improved board and administration support

Conservators and architectural conservators can apply to work on these assessments; there is a rolling application process. Eligibility requirements for assessors:

  • Professional training in conservation, zoology, botany or horticulture, architectural conservation, architecture, landscape, architecture, engineering, or related field
  • At least five years of professional experience in preservation, conservation, or collections care in one of the above fields
  • Experience conducting general conservation assessments
    • Potential workshop being developed for eligible people who do not have experience in conducting assessments

There is an annual call for institutions to apply for the funding for the assessment. Museum eligibility:

  • Small or mid-size – reviewable in 2 days
  • Organized as nonprofits or unit of state, local, or tribal government
  • Located in the United States or territory
  • Organized on a permanent basis for educational or aesthetic purposes
  • Own tangible objects and make them available to the public
  • At least 1 FTE paid or unpaid

Assessor fees are based on the annual operating budget of the museum. If an assessor’s fee is higher, the museum must make up the cost difference. They also pay for transportation, lodging, and meals.

CAP Program Cycle 2018

  • Museum Applications 11/15/17
  • Assessor Applications: Rolling
  • Museum Applications Close: 2/1/18
  • Availability for a new more museums for this fiscal year (before the end of 2017)

Laura Hortz Stanton, Executive Director, Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts, presented on StEPS, which has been funded by IMLS since 2005 to assist in creating incremental standards for the History Museum field.

Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPS)  is open to any museum. It’s a great entry-level program for institutions that don’t feel ready for another assessment program, or can’t use an outside assessor. It is a self-study tool that is used by 850 organizations nationwide (current enrollment numbers).

The self study tool is a notebook, made up of check boxes. If one can’t check off a box, that means it is an opportunity for improvement for the institution. Here’s a sample picture of a page in the notebook:

As shown in the image above, each section has three levels – not a “one size fits all” and not intended to meet best practices if you can’t do it on your first shot. it creates a way to have meaningful progress without having to spend lots of money. The institution spends more time than money on this process. The notebook also includes:

  • Board orientation manual
  • Job descriptions for board officers and paid/ unpaid staff
  • Ethics code
  • Facilities Rental Policy
  • Emergency Plan
  • Maintenance Plan
  • Collections Policy

How to enroll:

  • One-time fee of $175 for AASLH members; $290 for non-AASLH members
    • No application to fill out and no deadline to complete the program

Benefits of StEPS:

  • Focus direction
  • Increase credibility
  • Justify funding requests and decisions
  • Plan for the future
  • Learn about standards
  • Track progress
  • Articulate accomplishments – StEPS benchmarks
  • Receive recognition (certificates when you reach certain goals)
  • Prepare for other assessment programs

After the presentations, the group broke up into groups for people to ask one-on-one questions to the presenters about their program.

AIC Advocacy Alert: Trump Proposes Eliminating NEH, NEA, and IMLS – ACT NOW!

Dear Members,

This morning, President Trump released a budget blueprint that calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Institute for Museums and Library Services (IMLS). This is the first American President in history to propose zeroing out all funding for the nation’s federal cultural agencies.

Immediate Action

  • Use the National Humanities Alliance’s (NHA) online tool for crafting a message to your congressional representatives asking for their support to fund and save NEH and IMLS. The NHA template does not currently reference IMLS, please add IMLS in to your message. NHA is currently updating their advocacy tools located under the resource tab of their website.  Here you will find fact sheets about NEH and can search for NEH grants in your state.
  • Use the Americans for the Arts’ (AFTA) online tool for crafting a message to your congressional representatives asking for their support to fund and save NEA.
  • AAM’s “State Snapshots” tool allows you to see how much funding museums receive on a state-by-state basis to improve your case with your representatives.
  • If you can devote the time to send three emails, AAM has an email template to send your congressional representatives a message in support of IMLS. Please update the message to include the elimination threat.
  • You can send one email for all three agencies. However, multiple emails are a stronger message.

Even if you sent messages in our last campaign, before the threat was real, please send another round of emails. You can reuse a lot of your text from last time. If you have never responded to one of our advocacy alerts – now is the time!

Next Steps

  • This year’s appropriations process is likely to last for several months. You will receive additional advocacy alerts from AIC over the next days and weeks. Please respond to the emails as soon as possible, even if it sounds similar to a past alert.
  • Reach out to your network of colleagues, clients, and friends and ask them to send emails to their representatives.

The Appropriations Process

The President only proposes a budget. It is up to Congress through the appropriations process to determine what departments and agencies to fund and at what levels. The process for the 2018 budget will start with the Appropriations Committees and Subcommittee drafting legislation that sets funding levels for the NEH, NEA, IMLS, as well as other programs.

In the last several years, we have seen strong, bipartisan support on the Appropriations committee for the NEH including a $1.9 million increase in FY 2016 and increases proposed by both chambers for FY 2017.

It is critically important that this year’s draft appropriations bills in the House and Senate subcommittees provide adequate funding for humanities programs. Strong draft appropriations levels will put our priorities in a good position to counter the President’s budget blueprint.

We should be prepared for actions outside of the typical appropriations process such as blocking amendments that would cut or eliminate funding both in committee and on the floor. If, in contrast, one or both subcommittees do not provide funding for these priorities, we will need to be prepared to restore funding by amendment in subcommittee, committee, or on the floor.

Reports from the AAM and NHA Advocacy Days show that there is bipartisan support in Congress for NEH, NEA, and IMLS. We need to continue to show our Congressional Representatives that NEH, NEA, and IMLS are vital to our democracy and society.

42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings (Joint with Wooden Artifacts), May 31, “Painted Totem Poles at the American Museum of Natural History: Treatment Challenges and Solutions” by Samantha Alderson, Judith Levinson, Gabrielle Tieu, and Karl Knauer

Those who have beheld the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History and its extraordinary “totem poles” will instantly recognize the potential scope of any study or treatment of such massive artifacts.

The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, which opened in 1900, highlights the traditional cultures of the native peoples of North America’s northwest shores from Washington State to southern Alaska, including the  Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tlingit, and others. (Source:
The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, which opened in 1900, highlights the traditional cultures of the native peoples of North America’s northwest shores from Washington State to southern Alaska, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tlingit, and others. (Source:

These objects are housed in the earliest wing of the museum, curated at its inception by Franz Boas, “the father of American Anthropology”, who organized the early acquisitions of the museum according to a revolutionary argument: that of “cultural relativism” in opposition to a chauvinistic, social-Darwinist organization that put “primitive” peoples at the bottom of an evolutionary tree, the pinnacle of which was white America. Today, this hall holds a landmarked status and remains relatively unchanged, as the poles are very hard to move.

Ten years ago, a renovation of the hall was proposed. Although the recession thwarted plans, the objects were still in need of stabilization and aesthetic improvements. Because this project—from its inception, through the research, testing, and execution stage, was so expansive—Samantha Alderson reminded her audience that her talk could only represent an overview of a four-year process. Those interested in a specific aspect of the project can look forward to in-depth, forthcoming publications.
One of the more important aspects of the research phase, and a professional obligation that is indispensable to the curation and conservation of native materials, was the consideration of ethical issues and provenance information. Most of these pieces entered the collection between the 1880s and the 1920s, and the majority has been on continual, open display since their arrival. Their presence in AMNH’s collection is widely acknowledged to be ethically complicated in itself, representing an era of unscrupulous dealing in Northwest Coast artifacts. (To read more about “Indians and about their procurable culture,” consult Douglas Cole’s, “Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts,” about the coincidence of a taste for these native artifacts and the establishment of many of the country’s foremost natural history collections. (p.xi)]
The carvings, including the carved columns most commonly described as ”totem poles,” would have had numerous functions within their originating cultures: house frontal poles holding entry portals to buildings, interior house posts, welcome figures, memorial poles, and mortuary posts [For a technical study on these types of carvings, please consult “Melissa H. Carr. “A Conservation Perspective on Wooden Carvings of the Pacific Northwest Coast.” Wooden Artifacts Group Postprints. 1993.].
To further hone their understanding of provenance, the 2009 CCI “Caring for Totem Poles” workshop in Alert, Canada, allowed the authors to travel through British Columbia with curatorial consultants, native carvers, and native caretakers, in order to study the techniques of manufacture. It was also important to keep abreast of the expectations of the native communities that might be borne out over the course of any treatment intervention or re-installation campaign.
The original aim of this project was to provide structural stability to those carvings which exhibited highly deteriorated surfaces caused by the weathering and biodeterioration in their original environment. These instabilities were often exacerbated by inappropriate environmental conditions and restoration interventions in the museum. The most significant issue requiring treatment was the presence of wood rot, insects, and biological growth, present in the original environment and continuing to run their course.
Although climate control was installed in 1995, soot from the age of coal heaters and lamps still blanketed the inaccessible areas of the objects. Dust from visitor traffic also dulled them, as the hall is adjacent to the entrance to the IMAX theatre. Routine and well-intentioned cleaning was ineffective against a century of accumulated grime and dust and was causing surface loss.
The location of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in relation to the IMAX theatre
The location of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in relation to the IMAX theatre

As there is no barrier between the objects and the visitor, touching has caused burnishing and scratching. The unfinished wood readily absorbs skin oils; and graffiti and adhered chewing gum had also become a most-unfortunate problem.
Early interventions after acquisition had caused condition problems of their own, as old fills had a hardness or density that is inappropriate for soft, weathered wood. These fill materials were only becoming more ugly, unstable, crumbly, and cracked with age.
All of these factors, taken together, provided a huge impetus for treatment.
To begin the treatment-planning stage, the conservators at AMNH performed examinations under visible and UV radiation and mapped the observed conditions and materials using a streamlined iPad-based documentation protocol. In some cases the restoration materials observed provided evidence of institutional and condition history. Although there were almost no previous treatment records of these objects, comparison with archival photographs of many of the objects showed the rate of deterioration since acquisition and provided clues as to dates of interventions and installation history.
In summary of the object-treatment stage, vacuums and sponges were first used in an attempt to reduce some of the dinginess of the surface and to increase the legibility of the painted designs. The many resinous and waxy coatings had trapped so much dust, however, that this treatment did not always have a satisfactory result.
The question of solvent toxicity held sway in all aspects of treatment, as operations were completed in makeshift spaces outside of the lab, due to the size of the objects; these areas had no fume-extraction infrastructure. Luckily, plaster fills could be softened with a warm-water-and-ethanol mixture and carved out.
Temporary conservation lab set-up in the gallery.
Temporary conservation lab set-up in the gallery (See treatment photo gallery here).

Butvar B-98 and Paraloid B-72 were selected as potential consolidants and adhesives. A 5-10% Butvar B-98 solution in ethanol (i.e. without the toluene component for safety concerns) was used for surface stabilization, and Paraloid B-72 in acetone was used for adhesion of splinters and detached fragments.
Karl Knauer filling splinter edges.
Karl Knauer filling splinter edges.

Fills were designed using different materials depending on the location on the object. These were intended to reduce damage during installation, display, and regular maintenance. If the fill was not visible, shapes were cut from Volara, beveled, and adhered in place with Paraloid B-72 along the edges. These were often necessary on the tops of the poles to cover the deep voids of deteriorated wood. Some losses were back-filled with tinted glass micro-balloon mixtures of different grades and different resin-to-balloon ratios where appropriate. As some paints were solvent-sensitive, certain fills required the use of Paraloid B-67. The final fill type was a removable epoxy-bulked fill to compensate for deep losses in visible areas. These areas were first filled with polyethylene foam to prevent the fill from locking in. The edges of the fill area to be cast were protected by tamping down teflon (plumber’s) tape which conforms nicely to the wooden surface. West System 105 Epoxy Resin—with “fast” 205, “slow” 206, or “extra-slow” 209 hardeners—was used in different proportions to 3M glass microspheres and pigments to give fill material with various hardness, curing-times, textures, and colors (See Knauer’s upcoming publication in ICOM-CC Warsaw 2013 for more details). This method is notable for its invisibility, its reversibility, and its rejection of phenolic micro-balloons, which are an unstable and unsuitable and were historically used for such a wood fill merely for their brown color. Once cured, the bulked-epoxy (and the plumber’s tape) were removed and the fills were then tacked into place with B-72 to produce an aesthetically pleasing and protective cap.
Many losses which were previously filled were left unfilled, as would have been the case it they had been collected and treated today. Crack fills were incised so as to retain the appearance of a (smaller) crack.
Once the surface and structure was stabilized with the consolidation and filling operations, the team turned their attention to the various paint films to be cleaned. Many of these were proteinaceous but some were more similar to house paints. This data was consistent with the ethnographic findings and with current native practice. No preparatory layers were used, and the pigment layers were often very lean.
PLM, XRF, and SEM-EDS, as well as UV-FL imaging, thin sections, and analysis with FTIR was undertaken. Some binder analysis was also possible, but this was complicated by historical treatments. Interpretation of epi-fluorescence microscopy results was also thwarted by the presence of multiple coatings, the inter-penetration, -dissolution, and bleed-through of layers. As many as four different types of coatings were identified, and understanding and addressing the condition issues caused by these coatings became a primary concern. Cellulose Nitrate was often applied to carvings in the early 20th century. Whether this was to refurbish or protect, it has developed into a dark-brown layer which is alternately hazy and glossy and which obscured the original surface appearance. Lower regions evidenced PVA or PVAc on top of the Cellulose Nitrate. Shellac and dammar are present in isolated locations, as is an orange resin which eluded identification (even when analyzed with GCMS).
Although identification of these coatings was attempted, removal was not originally planned due to the difficulties designing a solvent system for its reduction, considering the variation in sensitivities, the interpenetration of the layers, and the unknown condition of the original paint films beneath. This plan changed when the poles were deinstalled for construction.
The treatment design was largely aided by the isolation of four house posts in the collection made by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Arthur Shaughnessy.
Arthur Shaughnessy carving one of these poles (Photograph by George Hunt, copyright AMNH).
Arthur Shaughnessy carving one of these poles (Photograph by George Hunt, copyright AMNH).

Commissioned by AMNH in 1923, these had never been installed outdoors but which had been coated in the same manner and exhibited in the same space. This allowed for the development of controlled methods for coating reduction.
A Teas table (or Teas chart) was used to identify potential solvents or solvent mixtures, which were tested over every color and monitored for any leaching or swelling. These initial tests were deemed unsuccessful.
In areas without paint, film reformation with acetone reduced haziness or glossiness. Where the coating was completely removed, the wood was often left with an over-cleaned appearance which necessitated some coating redistribution with MBK, MEK, and propylene glycol. Wherever possible, gels were used to reduce the exposure to toxic solvents. In painted areas, the large variation in solvent sensitivity, the inconsistency of media binders, the varying porosity of the wood, and the changing direction of the wood grain required that the conservators work inch-by-inch. DMSO, a component of “safe” stripper, and NMP were controllable over certain colors but caused considerable swelling.
February 2012, the museum saw the reinstallation of the Shaughnessy poles, marking the effective conclusion of the testing period and the successful management of a challenging triage situation by conservation staff.

It was Kwakwaka‘wakw artists like Arthur Shaughnessy who kept carving traditions active when the Canadian government prohibited the potlatch ceremony in 1885. The ban was lifted in 1951, after AMNH’s acquisition of the house posts.
The completion of treatment represents an important opportunity to educate the public: Although these monumental carvings are exhibited in a historic wing of the museum, we need to dust them off and remember that these carvings represent very, active traditional practices and communities.
There is still the need to develop more systematic solvent strategies, as well as to consult with a paintings conservator. But it is clear that these objects stand to look much improved after the grime and coatings are removed or reduced and the objects are thoughtfully reintegrated with a well-designed fill system. Thanks to the remarkable talents of the AMNH team, these stately creations are finally commanding the respect they deserve.
Hall of Northwest Coast Indians :: AMNH
From the Bench: These Face Lifts Require Heavy Lifting :: IMLS
Arthur Shaughnessy house post carvings reinstalled following conservation treatment (February 2012) :: AMNH
Changing Approaches to the Conservation of Northwest Coast Totem Poles :: Reed College
Andrew Todd (1998). “Painted Memory, Painted Totems,” In Dorge, Valerie and F. Carey Howlett (eds.), Painted Wood: History and Conservation (pp. 400-411). Proceedings of a symposium organized by the Wooden Artifacts Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the Foundation of the AIC, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.
A Brief History of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition :: AMNH


Stories of Success: A Collaborative Survey Shines Fresh Light on Korean Paintings

This post is part of the “From the Bench series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, part artisan, part caretaker, a conservator works to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Katherine Holbrow, Head of Conservation, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA

Shared expertise plays an essential role in good collections care. In Spring 2012, valuable support from IMLS enabled the Asian Art Museum to bring together an interdisciplinary team of experts to carry out a conservation survey of rare Korean paintings.

Korean paintings conservator Chi-sun Park and her assistant, Eun-Hye Cho, of Jung-Jae Conservation Center in Seoul, Korea, collaborated with Asian Art Museum conservators, curators, and translators to examine hanging scrolls, albums, and screens dating from the 14th to 19thcenturies. The team examined each painting, then identified conservation and curatorial priorities, evaluated scroll and album mounts, and discussed treatment alternatives.

Left to right: Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu, visiting conservator Chi-Sun Park, associate curator Hyonjeong Kim Han, and paintings conservator Shiho Sasaki discuss a Joseon dynasty painting.
Did you know that due to a tradition of under-floor heating, Korean folding screens typically have feet? Above, Chi-sun Park examines a Korean painting mounted as a folding screen. The mount uses a mixture of Korean and Japanese elements.

The project quickly grew beyond an assessment of treatment needs, sparking stimulating discussions of the broader ethical and aesthetic questions that surround the remounting of Korean paintings, including the following:

  • What characteristics do Korean mounts share with Chinese or Japanese mounts?
  • What elements are unique to Korea?
  • How can the mounts help tell the history of our paintings?

 Good conservation decisions require a cultural sensitivity to fine detail and a clear grasp of such abstract questions, even if there is more than one right answer!

This lively debate, along with explanations of common types of scroll damage, strategies to extend the life of a painting mount, and repair options, was shared with senior docents and museum visitors in publications, tours, and lectures. Read more about the Korean paintings project on the Asian Art Museum website.

From the Bench: Rehoused Instrument Collection Is Once Again Instrumental

This post is part of the “From the Bench series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, part artisan, part caretaker, a conservator works to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Catherine Sease, Senior Conservator, Peabody Museum of Natural History

             The Yale Peabody Museum’s collection of historical scientific instruments consists of approximately 4,000 instruments from a variety of scientific disciplines. Despite its significance, the collection has been completely inaccessible since 1991. At that time, due to the planned demolition of the building in which it was stored, the collection was packed up and, due to a lack of storage space, remained packed up until 2011. Over the years the boxes were extensively stacked and restacked and were moved at least three times, including the most recent move over seven miles. They have been stored in areas with uncontrolled climatic conditions, and have been exposed to drastic fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity as well as minor leaks and floods. These are all conditions that could easily cause the deterioration of the instruments.

             Because they were packed up, the instruments were unavailable for study, teaching, and exhibition. Their inaccessibility was further compromised by the inaccuracy of the catalog record. We knew that the catalog contained numerous errors; for example at least two percent of the collection was listed as missing. In addition, many instruments had accessories and parts that were not catalogued and some were packed separately from their primary instrument.

             Our IMLS-funded project enabled us to unpack the entire collection and rehouse it in new high-quality storage cabinets in a storeroom with climate control suitable for the long-term preservation of the collection. As each instrument was unpacked, the museum’s catalog was checked to verify that the description was accurate and all the pieces were present. Many were also photographed and the pictures were uploaded into the database. We now have a complete inventory of the entire collection on the museum’s database that is available to anyone with access to the Internet. The instruments are now spread out so that students and researchers can easily browse through the collection and see the instruments without touching them. They are now readily available for teaching and exhibit. Even though the project is not quite finished, we have already had requests for the loan of instruments for exhibits and professors are using instruments in their classes.

From the Bench: New Discoveries from What Lies Beneath

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, part artisan, part caretaker, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Nancie Ravenel, Objects Conservator, Shelburne Museum

While there are two conservators on staff at Shelburne Museum to take care of its day-to-day conservation needs, some projects within the museum’s diverse collection require the talents of a specialized conservator. With funding from IMLS in 2010, we were able to hire paintings conservator Pamela Betts for 17 months to examine and treat a selection of paintings from the 50 best in our collection. In the course of her examinations, Pam made some very interesting discoveries. Here are a few:

  • A portrait of a woman hidden beneath a still life depicting oysters and a glass of ale painted sometime between 1855-1870 by Charles D. Sauerwein  revealed in an x-radiograph.
  • An x-radiograph showed that Henry Durrie had included his hands and maybe an artist’s palette in his self-portrait painted 1830-1839, but they were later painted out.
  • The local hospital that helps us out with the x-rays archives the digital radiographs that they take of the objects in our collection. Their radiological technologists know the paintings by their radiographs but may not know what they look like on the wall!
  • Using two different methods of infrared photography, Pam documented compositional changes that Jasper F. Cropsey made to his 1844 landscape painting depicting Greenwood Lake.
  • We found that it is possible to get reasonable infrared images of painting underdrawings by putting the appropriate filter on our digital camera. Expensive equipment isn’t always required.
  • The ornate Rococo-style frame on Rembrandt Peale’s Girl with a Tuscan Hat is at least the same period as the painting if it is not original to it.

Paintings conservator Pamela Betts (right) discusses her progress on William Merritt Chase’s portrait of General James Watson Webb (1880, collection of Shelburne Museum) with curatorial fellow Erin Corrales-Diaz.

Since 1986, Shelburne Museum has had the honor of being awarded 16 Conservation Project Support grants. These have run the gamut of the activities supported:

  • improving environmental systems and storage furniture
  • conservation surveys and treatment
  • training both for new conservators and the conservators on staff

The common tie among the projects is that grants from IMLS have allowed us to innovate and collaborate in ways that would not have been otherwise possible and confer benefits for years after the project is complete. We’re excited to be able to share these discoveries with our visitors, especially those radiological technologists from the hospital who learn about the paintings in Shelburne Museum’s collection through their x-rays.

From the Bench: New Blog Series Highlights the Work of Conservators

IMLS, the American Institute for Conservation, and Heritage Preservation, welcome you to a new blog series, “From the Bench.”

Every day in museum, library, and private labs across the country, conservators go about the work of ensuring that the objects that define us are protected and preserved for the benefit of our own and of future generations. They create the first lines of defense against forces that would otherwise see the materials we hold dear reduced to unrecognizable dust, smears, or puddles and thus quieting their stories.

Conservators are first-rate scientists and detectives, working at every scale from the sub-molecular to that of massive building environments and using tools ranging from the simplest swabs to those that rival well-outfitted chemistry and physics labs anywhere. The discoveries they make—sometimes in the course of routine documentation and other times as part of a rigorous scientific protocol—reveal hidden histories and prompt new lines of inquiry every day.

It’s easy to understand why conservators say their work is gratifying. Routine and predictability are punctuated with astounding breakthroughs. Most of all, to them, their work in caring for objects is most valuable because it results in increased access and learning for now and long into the future.

IMLS is proud to support conservation work, and we are delighted to help sponsor this opportunity for conservators to tell about their work from the bench. We hope you enjoy the series.

Guidelines for grant applications for collections care and conservation projects will be available on the IMLS website in mid-October.  Applications are due through on January 15, 2013. For more information on these and other funding programs, please visit