39th Annual Meeting – General Session, June 2 “Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance” by Jane Klinger

Do the things that survive trauma become imbued with additional meaning?  Must conservators find and understand both the empirical and the non-empirical  when treating objects?  These questions are key to understanding the theme of Jane Klinger’s general session presentation on Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance.  Klinger brings the Pathos to the conference.  She points out objects that become survivors of war, terror, assassination, or persecution, carry with them the emotion of the assault. Klinger is the Chief Conservator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and brings to her presentation an intimate knowledge of treating objects of trauma. 

Klinger presents three main examples of the way Pathos plays a key role in the conservation of objects of trauma.  She begins by describing the top coat worn by Danish Resistance Fighter Jorgen Jespersen in 1944.  The coat, now located in the National Museum of Danish Resistance, is a symbol of national pride in the resistance of Nazi oppression.  According to Jespersen’s testimony, the Gestapo attempted to arrest him but he reached into his upper pocket and shot through his topcoat to wound and escape his captors.  In an example of the emotional weight of the object overshadowing it’s preservation, it appears that holes where added to the coat to emphasize the danger Jespersen survived.

The second example of the emotional weight associated with objects can be found in the Baker collection of objects at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Helen and Ross Baker were Americans who found themselves in Vienna during the time that Nazis took over the city.  They recorded the occupation and the closure of Jewish stores to non-Jews in both film and through diaries.  Their son, Stan Baker, later used the diaries to present the observations of his parents.  Upon donating the collection, the curators found that Stan had added notations to his mother’s diaries.  When the conservators were asked to remove the notations, they explained that the ink would still be faintly seen and impressions in the paper would be permanent.  Because of a thorough understanding of the emotional value as well as the physical condition, the decision was made to leave the notations as part of the historical record of the object.

Klinger uses objects that survived September 11 as a third example of Pathos and ethical considerations in the conservation of objects of trauma.  She discusses the Vesey Station Stairs and the Ladder Co. 3 Fire truck as objects that survived the horrors of 9/11.  The stairs have become a symbol of safety and escape to the survivors of the terrorist attacks.  The damaged fire truck carries with it the evidentiary authority of September 11, 2001.  Should the brutally damaged object be cleaned of the dust of 9/11?  Klinger argues that the emotions surrounding 9/11 are so emotionally raw that rational decisions may not be possible.

Through these examples, Klinger argues that it is the role of the conservator to incorporate rather than evade the Pathos of the object.  As a conservation scientist, there are times I get lost in the materials used and mechanics of deterioration of the object.  This talk serves as a vivid reminder of the added value of the emotions associated with the cultural object.