Restoring the immaterial: Using new media to communicate context

Sarah Barack and Beth Edelstein


As conservators, we necessarily immerse ourselves in the material nature of artwork. This focus ranges from active stabilization of the work to passive intervention – always holding the physical concerns of the work paramount. These efforts have an ambitious goal: to preserve the creator’s original intent, or, as is often the case with archaeological or ethnographic objects, to preserve information that communicates an object’s original use or purpose. Yet, however present the actual work of art may be, our efforts are challenged by the incontrovertible fact that often, the intangible aspects of the work’s creation are necessarily lost when the object is removed from its original context, or when that context itself evolves over time.

Conservators approach this challenge in a number of ways, including developing guidelines to help return an historic interior to its appearance at a particular time; advising institutions on how to display objects in ways sympathetic to original context; or providing external information about the object’s creation to the viewer. These solutions all attempt to communicate the environment in which the object was created, or even the environment in which it lived for centuries before coming to light in our time.

Today, new media tools, for instance interactive tablet applications, podcasts, videos, and even augmented reality, offer an effective means by which context might be suggested in experiential, holistic ways. Such didactics can be thought of as a more conceptual restoration, one that approaches the object from other vantage points than its materiality. The information available to the conservator’s eye is crucial to these efforts, as the physical traces of the object’s past environments are readable on its surface, and the details of an object’s creation so often reveal the thoughts, influences, and unique approaches of its creator. For an audience accustomed to seeing art objects cleanly divorced from their original context, this information places the object back into the real world and thus allows an entirely different experience.

Our first foray into this realm has involved partnering with educators who make short videos focusing on bringing art objects back into the “real” world, and relating their stories and context. This collaboration has great promise, as the information we provide broadens this recreated context in new and engaging ways. But it is clear that conservators and many other professionals around the world have avidly embraced new media tools for this purpose. We propose to both present our experience to date and also gather the stories of others working in this area to give the Objects Specialty Group audience an overview of current efforts to contextualize objects. Examples might include the simulated location and original lighting conditions of liturgical sculpture, or the use of 3D imaging to virtually place the sculpture back in its intended niche, or interactive recreations of fragmentary archaeological objects, structures and sites. Emerging partnerships encouraged by conservators’ involvement in recreating context will also be considered – with web developers, graphic designers, archaeologists, engineers, and especially educators and curators. Finally, we also aim to discuss briefly some of the theoretical questions that arise from this topic. Is providing a generally accurate, though perhaps not perfectly interpreted, context better than providing none at all? Where do we draw the line between “Disneyfication” of art objects and the provision of a human context for them? The overall goal will be to engender discussion of the possibilities for conservators to participate in a “virtual” conservation of an object’s context and life.

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2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20