Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Assignment #8: Project Proposal - Preservation of the Suida-Manning Papers at the Blanton Museum of Art

The Suida-Manning art collection is unique and tremendously valuable, both due its completeness, and the fact that a family of art historians amassed it over several generations of assiduous scholarship. Comprising approximately 250 paintings, 400 drawings, and 50 sculptures—with dozens of examples of regional schools of Italian painting—it was valued at $35 million dollars at the time it was acquired. The collection found a home at the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where it has proved a boon for curators, scholars, and students. Several years after acquiring the art collection, the Blanton received the Suida-Manning Papers, which document lives shaped by a consuming passion for both art collection and education.

Because the Suida-Manning Collection was acquired in its entirety, students and scholars benefit from context: the ability to examine individual works of art against all of the other paintings, drawings, and prints can enrich the experience. Unquestionably, the Suida-Manning Papers provide an even greater sense of provenance to the art collection, as well as insights as to the intellectual activities of the Suida-Mannings.

The Papers contain notes, manuscripts, letters, invoices, photographs, and ephemera accrued during the rich lives of William Suida, art historian and curator of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation Collection along with son-in-law Robert Lee Manning, and Bertina Suida-Manning an art historian and curator of the Chrysler Collection. The three have published extensively, including an authoritative text devoted to Luca Cambioso. However, at present, this treasure trove remains elusive: the papers’ current state of disorganization and unfriendly housing precludes access by scholars and curators.

A recent preservation assessment found these records to be in fair condition, but in desperate need of re-housing, extensive archival processing, and other preservation activities. This assessment—involving systematic observation of randomly-selected samples from the papers—provided useful data about the proportion of various types of objects, as well as the quantity of time and material supplies needed in order to improve papers’ situation.

The Blanton Museum enjoys a rare positive rapport with its parent educational institution. The University of Texas at Austin offers both a first-class College of Fine Arts as well as a School of Information that includes the highest-ranked US graduate program in Archives & Preservation. Part of the School of Information, the Kilgarlin Center for Preservation of the Cultural Record provides singular training for students in management of overarching preservation problems as well as applied conservation treatments. Additionally, a recently-launched graduate certificate in Museum Studies draws from both Art and Information Science students. Forming a partnership between the Blanton and these academic programs will supply all of the necessary skills required to address the Suida-Manning Papers’ needs.

In conclusion, the Suida-Manning Papers constitute an untapped resource for art historical scholarship and curatorial exploration. The conditions in which they are currently stored—such as ill-fitting legacy boxes and filing cabinets, all the while in extreme disorder—threaten continued damage to and permanent neglect of these unique materials. Financial resources are needed to support the much-needed archival processing, combined with surface cleaning, minor treatments, and complete re-housing. These efforts will preserve the materials, making access by potential researchers possible, which in turn will provide rich dividends for the broader scholarly community.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Assignment #7: Preservation Funding Trends

For better or worse, it seems as though much of the cultural preservation work undertaken in the USA is funded by various granting-agencies. There are some obvious pitfalls with this arrangement: organizations and institutions may be forced to tailor their projects to the (often quixotic) desires of the funding agencies rather than its own needs, the difficulty of assuring continuity or perpetuity for projects meant to survive beyond the grant-funded period, copious amounts of paperwork, and intra- and inter-institutional competition which can preclude cooperation.

Greater triangulation between funding agencies, institutions, and the public (users) could likely minimize the first problem, but the latter three constitute systemic flaws in the system, pointing to the deeper issue of cultural heritage institutions being chronically underfunded. The situation is analogous to malnourished children who are occasionally awarded dessert: the treat is pleasant while it lasts, but it heightens awareness the profound lack of food once consumed. The needy children instinctively presume causal relationships between their behavior and the receipt of the dessert, and do their best to earn one again, only to discover the capricious nature of the dessert-dispensing entity. At the risk of overburdening this cliche metaphor, just as this pattern fails to nurture the childrens' growth, institutions dependent on the succor of granting agencies cannot thrive as well as if sustenance was constant and predictable.

Recognizing the reality of the situation entails that institutions hoping to secure funding for their preservation efforts keep abreast of trends--what types of grants being offered, and what types of projects are winning them--in order to increase the odds of getting money. Prominent funders of cultural heritage preservation include: IMLS, Heritage Preservation, National Park Service, NHPRC (National Archives), Getty Conservation Institute, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Most of these have extensive information available through their websites. Reading through them all is as overwhelming as it is informative. Broadly speaking, agencies are concerned with certain key imperatives: increased responsiveness and interactivity between users and institutions; researching and implementing new technologies for providing access or for preservation methodology; promoting environmentally sound practices, and for preserving the significant cultural heritage material produced underrepresented but vitally important groups, especially Native American Tribes.

In addition to proposing projects that fall under these broad goals, grant-seekers must be keenly attuned to methods for asserting the merits of their collections, and the ability to integrate the project into their overall mission. Finally, we cannot help but observe several paradoxes at play: striking a balance between emphasizing a collections uniqueness (and therefore important to preserve) while simultaneously positing the project as extensible to other collections (reproducible); trying to embrace the cutting-edge while assuring the timelessness and sustainability of the project, just to name a couple.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Assignment #6 part 2: Digital Preservation for Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Digital Preservation, defined by the ALA constitutes: "policies, strategies and actions to ensure access to reformatted and born digital content regardless of the challenges of media failure and technological change. The goal of digital preservation is the accurate rendering of authenticated content over time." For libraries and archives, whose collections are being digitized or, increasingly, are arriving as "born digital" (e.g. point of origin and existence are electronic), the mandate to preserve digital resource is strong. Any government agency or private individual's papers will be either "hybrid" (paper and electronic records) or effectively 100% digital. This trend will undoubtedly progress, and the question remains whether libraries and archives are up to the challenge. Replicable models exist, such as the OAIS reference system established by ISO.

As one might expect, Government and University libraries are leading the way toward developing, disseminating, and implementing digital preservation policies. The Library of Congress has an extensive, interactive website, "digitalpreservation.gov" devoted to its digital preservation department's practices and standards, as well as highlighting its participation with digital preservation initiatives around the country. The site is extremely useful as it includes information about US government standards (digitizationguidelines.gov), and studies related to copyright and format longevity. As the library of record for the USA, the Library of Congress takes its role as a standard bearer very seriously, to which the vastness of resources related to digital preservation in this website witnesses.

University Library digital preservation websites tend to focus on the specific policies of the institution. The digital preservation policy at Yale University, for example, defines its purpose: "Digital preservation is the whole of the activities and processes involved in the physical and intellectual protection and technical stabilization of digital resources through time in order to reproduce authentic copies of these resources," and lays out its guidelines for file format, storage, life cycle, metadata, access, intellectual property, and reference resources in a simple, easy-to-follow manner. It is a go-to reference tool that is simple for librarians to follow and for students to comprehend.

Museums, as I have already observed elswhere in this blog, typically contain less "front end" documentation of their behind-the-scenes policies and practices. Digital preservation policies do not appear as such on any museum websites that I have come across. That does not mean that the idea is foreign or undeveloped in museum literature. Particularly for museums such as the Whitney Museum of Art, who have made the collecting of "New Media" (digital or other electronic art forms, including "net art") a priority, digital preservation takes on the same importance as paintings conservation. Instead of focusing on government documents or historical materials, museums and galleries devoted to new media view the problem as simply maintaining the existence of works of art. In his book, Collecting the New, Bruce Altshuler contemplates the theoretical and practical implications of collecting materials for which there is no known expiration date, and aesthetic choices that transcend color and composition. Organizations such as those behind the annual Museums and the Web conference and publications as well as other academic and professional organizations related to art and art museums have taken up the issue as well. It would certainly be a useful partnership for museum studies and art history programs to link up with graduate programs in information studies, computer science, and conservation.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Assignment #6 part 1: Digitization and Digital Preservation

Photo Credit: Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Doug Mills/The New York Times
Katie Hafner, "History, Digitized (and Abridged)," New York Times, Your Money, March 10, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/10/business/yourmoney/11archive.html?pagewanted=all

In this article, Technology Writer Katie Hafner cautions that "important pieces of history that are at risk of disappearing or being ignored in the digital age," due to not being digitized. On the face of it, this argument appears facile and alarmist. If anything, the general public has a level of access to information and historical resources heretofore unimaginable. Archives and local libraries have always contained buried treasures. Only major institutions ever published finding aids or catalogs as bound volumes. Researchers would have to exercise considerable assiduity in order to determine resources' locations, before having to travel to the site.

Nowadays even small archives are able to summarize or offer selected finding aids over the Internet, making pinpointing locations far simpler. Many major libraries and archives afford researchers the opportunity to order duplications online or over the phone. Granted, it might be more complicated than ordering a book from Amazon.com, but it should be recalled that until recently, only a very select few had the inclination or ability to track down primary historical resources and now that cadre has expanded to include almost everyone.

Gafner highlights a central problem: she quotes Edward L. Ayers, who says,"There's an illusion being created that all the world's knowledge is on the Web..." when in reality, as much as there is available online compared to what used to be the case, it still only constitutes the smallest fraction of the cultural heritage materials in existence. So, effectively the issue is false perception on the part of society.

I am a huge advocate for expanded access, particularly for visual materials such as photographs, but I operate under no misconceptions: there is no way that every last scrap of historical documentation can or should be put on the Internet. From many the many issues at stake, I'll choose two: the false belief that having a digital surrogate of a book or manuscript permanently preserves the object, and the difficulty of providing context [provenance for the archives geeks] to archival materials online.

While these objections are philosophical, I believe that they have important practical ramifications. The fact that historical documents' artifactual value is deeply rooted in their physical existence is lost on some people. The fallacy that digitization = preservation is pernicious. Take this passage from the article for example: "I can't tell you how many people have suggested to us, 'Oh, you just need to digitize all that stuff down in the basement and you'll be all right,' " Ms. Wainwright said." If these materials are lost in the flood, they are lost even if digitized versions preserve the textual information. The visceral connection materials offer to the past simply cannot be substituted by pixels, no matter how high the digitization specs are. Moreover, unless serious advances in digital preservation take place, it is not necessarily the case that the digital copies will outlast the original paper-based records or that access will exist in perpetuity.

The concept of provenance has been central to archival theory since the 18th Century. It relates to the context and origination of materials, as well as the relationship of individual documents to the overall fonds, or group of records, as well as to the archival institution maintaining the records. For photographic materials, especially those without attribution, their place amongst a collection is especially relevant. But with Internet meta-searches or googleimages searching being the primary way in which in which casual researchers look for photographs online, the images are often floating signifiers, entirely divorced from their original groups. They maintain their visual information, but without the benefit of context.

Without a doubt, cultural collective memory benefits from increased online access to materials, but it is important to realize that preservation and access have always been limited by resources, attitudes, taste, and access. To combat haphazard and myopic representations of the past, Archivists and librarians should think collectively and cooperatively about what they digitize. Theories such as Documentation Strategy could be helpful, allowing institutions to band together to best reflect society through which documents are selected for digitization. Keep in mind that when we regard historical materials, we draw conclusions about the past based both on what exists and what does not.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In-class Exercise: Hypothetical Preservation Policies

Group: Lauren Algee, Elspeth Healey, Elizabeth Seramur

Institution: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Because of the Blanton Museum's mission as a teaching institution focused on exhibition and creative curatorship, the primary focus of a hypothetical preservation policy should hinge on maintaining the artworks through a variety of strategies. The safety of the artworks both in storage and exhibition is paramount. While on display, controlled climate, lighting, and exhibit design strategies can lessen the impact on materials. Efforts should be undertaken to educate staff, guards, docents, and patrons on observing diligent practices when interacting with artworks. In order to maintain its permanent collection and to safeguard loan items, policies should stipulate preservation storage conditions: climate control, careful handling, effective housing, fire suppression, and secure access points, including loading docks. The Blanton could take advantage of the two Preservation programs on campus, and avail itself of students to conduct preservation/conservation needs assessments for the objects and facilities, perform minor treatments, and implement re-housing projects.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Blog 5: MPLP

Greene, Mark A. and Dennis Meissner. 2005. "More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collection." American Archivist, 63.2 (Fall/Winter). Pre-print available online at: http://ahc.uwyo.edu/documents/faculty/greene/papers/Greene-Meissner.pdf

Archival work is defined by the paradoxical challenges inherent to archival materials. One of the most pernicious of these paradoxes is the perceived binary conflict between preservation and access. Greene and Meissner's article responds to the problem of backlogs in archives. In these authors' view backlogs are due in large part to overly-fastidious processing habits that derive from object-level orientation. The article characterizes processing archivists and conservators as OCD housekeepers, needlessly terrorized by paper clips and staples. They are also depicted as hoarders whose concern for the materials' condition impedes access by researchers. It is no wonder, then, that processing archivists and conservators often object to the mantra of "More Product Less Process." The authors would have been well-advised to consult with some of the folks they chastise, if only to soften the blows and prevent (rhetorical) reprisals.

Lost in the instinctive ruffling-of-feathers, are some manifestly useful ideas, based on systematic observations, including feedback from archivists and patrons of archives. Bracing pronouncements can provoke fruitful debates about what kinds of practices can be modified and streamlined. The most important theme that can be derived from pragmatic archival theory, such as that espoused by Greene, is the responsibility of the archivist to act as a steward not just for collection materials but also of the financial and other resources allotted. As these resources dwindle, it is imperative that archives justify their existence and work at every level. It should be on the conscience of every archivist that he/she use time and materials wisely. In order to do this, stepping back and examining current processing practices may be in order both to eliminate waste and emphasize effective practices. Some habits may be kept and others relinquished as the overall workflow is streamlined.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that refoldering is perhaps too much maligned by Greene and Meissner. It is an important exercise in establishing both physical and intellectual control over the materials. In my personal experience, during the refoldering process previously unknown significant documents are discovered, sensitive information identified for restriction/redaction, and severely damaged objects in need of treatment are observed. With personal papers, often the vaunted "original order" means no order at all, so even if an alternative arrangement is not imposed, at least the processor could make useful observations in the course of rehousing that could inform the finding aid, much like the "preliminary" processing mentioned in the article (19). Lacking or otherwise uninformative finding aids, coupled with archival staff who also have no idea what's in all those boxes can be a greater impediment to access than the dreaded "backlog."

Returning briefly to the paradoxical nature of archives, we must remember that the purpose of archives is to preserve AND provide access to cultural heritage documentation. This is not an either/or proposition. It is important to recognize that preservation serves access, and use (via access) justifies preservation. And we cannot provide access to objects that no longer exist. So, the two are inextricably bound to one another, rather than competing.