What are Preservation and Conservation Technologies?

As long as there have been museums, their mission has been to preserve and conserve our collective cultural heritage. Preservation refers to the protection of important objects, artifacts, and documents; conservation is the science of maintaining objects in as close to their original form as possible. As technology evolves, archivists and conservators have encountered a steady stream of new challenges in both of these tasks. Digital objects can be as delicate as ancient objects, requiring special care, and changing technologies puts these digital items at great risk. Cultural works that are time-based add a level of complexity in the quest for preservation, due to the added consideration of the artist's intent, or context, or movement. Understanding and preserving how media is intended to be experienced while maintaining the integrity of its cultural identity encompasses a number of a considerations such as conservation ethics, legal agreements, availability of mechanical and/or digital materials, and historical scholarship. While museums have long employed specialists in artifact preservation, today new professionals are needed who understand digital and time-based media, and can address preservation and conservation challenges not only from physical, but artistic, cultural, engineering, electronic, and other multi-disciplinary perspectives.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Training of museum professionals with time-based media preservation skills is most urgent. This is indeed an area of professional practice that is in desperate need of funding, staff and support within institutions. The present and future of art making will be predominantly be made with digital palettes, as these are the accessible, immediate and global art making tools of our time. Museums of the future will increasingly and more rapidly collect art works made of bits at a rate faster and with more complexity than previous eras of audiovisual graphic art such as prints, photography and video. - nealstimler nealstimler Feb 14, 2016
  • Agreed. The Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Museum began studying this in depth about 16 years ago. I think the Guggenheim was there, too. The rapid obsolescence of media arts remains a big concern as more art is produced using digital tools and is viewed on them. That said, the topic feels a bit curious here, but perhaps it should not feel that way. I wonder if it needs to be called out in the "other important things" section, or whatever that is called?- weberj weberj Feb 28, 2016
  • Museums are starting to explore digital restoration of physical works, which allows them to experiment with restoration in a virtual environment without physically altering an object. This work increasingly has a public appeal, as demonstrated by the increasing number of museum web sites that are showcasing this type of conservation/preservation work taking place in their institutions. - dianezorich dianezorich Feb 23, 2016

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • Time-based media artworks by their nature cannot be by conserved “as close to their original form as possible.” With time-based media artworks, the guiding principle is flux rather than fixity, as works will be copied, distributed, emulated, migrated, transformed in order to continue circulating as aesthetic experiences. The essential characteristics of an artwork in the case of time-based media are often not determined by their materials. They are made to be viewed and interacted with using the media production tools of everyday life in the present. Authenticity is not determined by the artist’s documented intent alone, if this information is even available. Art history has shown the concerns and qualifications for judgement often come after and sometimes long after creative inception. Extensive written and media documentation, still images, video, performance scripts, etc., are critical elements in these works long-term viability. Museums too must foster continued partnerships with artists and their agents to be active, engaged and conscious participants for the responsible care of these works when held in the public trust. This extends beyond the acquisition process when works enter museum collections. Artist imposed constraints on exhibition, dissemination and copyright can be undue burdens that museums must challenge and re-negotiate in order to maintain their integrity of service as stewards of these artworks for the public good. - nealstimler nealstimler Feb 14, 2016
  • There also is another aspect here: preservation of at-risk cultural heritage monuments and sites.The loss or imminent risk of loss of these monuments and sites due to warfare and strife is driving considerable attention to technologies that can digitally identify, capture, and recreate these sites so they can be studied/experienced virtually should they be physically destroyed. Technologies such as 3D digitization and satellite technology as increasingly being used in this work. - dianezorich dianezorich Feb 23, 2016 +1 - njohnson njohnson Feb 27, 2016
  • Could this topic be more inclusive and relevant if you included the systems that are being developed and used to help conservation and preservation of cultural artifacts of all kinds? I'm thinking in particular about the Mellon-funded ConservationSpace system and the forthcoming TMS conservation module - njohnson njohnson Feb 27, 2016
  • There are a lot of related issues here. To begin with, museums are faced with precisely the same problems of "conventional" digital preservation that most businesses and institutions have to deal with (e.g. email), and for the most part aren't doing an especially good job with it. Then there's the issue of born-digital objects -- not just art; not just time-based -- that museums collect, and that will lose their "essential elements," as the digital preservation folks call them, if they are preserved using the methods practiced in the library community. Call this the aesthetic, or look and feel, or whatever. Finally, there's all that stuff that museums create for themselves, which includes the kinds of materials that Diane mentions above. While 3D simulations might represent the more exotic end of this spectrum, think of the hundreds of small historical societies and museums compiling oral histories and videos, and figuring they're covered because they back up to a RAID, or store the material in the cloud. These are pervasive and unglamorous problems that will emerge gradually over the next decade or two. The technology for handling this material exists, or is being developed, but what's still largely missing is a merging of the concerns of the digital curation/preservation community with those of the digital strategists who are beginning to appear in museums.- chuck.patch chuck.patch Mar 18, 2016

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

  • The preservation of time-based media artworks, and moreover all the bits that make-up our cultural memory now and in the future, necessitate a paradigm shift in curriculum changes in art history, fine art and museum studies. Through online certification, university courses and professional workshops, the role of the technologist artisan must be fostered. These maker-scholars need the capacity for ongoing and exponential humanist inquiry along with the abilities to build new skills to adjust with the ever changing technological landscape. - nealstimler nealstimler Feb 14, 2016
  • Bringing preservation/conservation "out of the back rooms" and into the public eye holds great potential for education and interpretation. Technologies used for preservation/conservation are letting the public better understand how museums care for collections, how scholars use the work of conservators to explore issues such as authenticity and connoisseurship, how cultural objects are made/altered and what this means (context), etc. Increasingly, museums are helping visitors become pro-active about preservation of their own family or community cultural material, hosting webinars, on-site demos, and other "how to preserve" events - dianezorich dianezorich Feb 23, 2016

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?