Beyond the Object: A Call to Art Conservation

By Imagining America | February 13, 2015

By Kimi Taira, PAGE Co-director

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare” [Japanese Proverb]

I am writing because I am becoming a furious art conservator. I recognize that this partially comes from my personal attitude about civic responsibility and social involvement, but where are the voices of my field in light of Ferguson? We are not immune to issues of racism, discrimination, and injustice. Coming into graduate school, part of my professional goals included efforts to make conservation accessible to minority histories that live outside The Museum and to concentrate on the ones needing to be revisited within The Museum. If, as a professional charged with the physical preservation of cultural heritage, I ignore what happens to the communities surrounding me, then I am mistakenly operating in a vacuum. While the work is object- centered and science-oriented, ultimately, conservation is still tied to people and to the social values that govern us.

KimiTaira_DSC0138Since the work of art conservation is often a hidden activity and perhaps argued that this work has no place in this social dialogue, I have not found many discussions about how conservation is socially engaged. My question is how can it not?! It may be a more quiet, less excitable expression, but we enforce a cultural norm by agreeing to privilege which objects receive stabilization and can therefore be accessed or exhibited; we are privileging certain histories.1 Preservation is nothing without having the communities to cultivate the value, interpretation, and care of the things that conservators painstakingly repair. If we do not share in the small joys or the phenomenal struggles surrounding us—if we do not participate in our present–what is conservation about?

This field is not about passively witnessing history or placating an ancient artifact; I want to know how my field defines its role in shaping the future.KimiTaira_DSC0196 We are more than just nostalgic for a past; we are advocates for a legacy to the next generation. We preserve things that we hope continue to have meaning and value, that we refuse to forget, that needs to be deeply communicated. As we so intensely discuss sustainability of our treatment practices or digitization for wider public access, when do we incorporate the social issues that impact the publics we are serving? Why are we not building this into a critical dialogue about the economic and social implications of our work?

While a conservator’s specialized research and skills may not be the most suitable actions in bringing a direct solution to Ferguson, this is a call to say that we cannot ignore the world that we live in. Cultural stewardship is more than just about caring for a collection because it is not frozen in time; our eyes need to be tuned to the social attitudes, how we perceive ourselves, and how we cultivate our identities. However we are empowered to engage with our communities, we have a daily impact in the actions we take inside and outside the lab.

1 Paris, J. 2000. “Conservation and the politics of use and value in research libraries.” Book and Paper Annual 19 (accessed February 8, 2015: http://cool.conservation- )