I really enjoyed Kirsten’s Dunne’s talk because she addressed a challenge that all conservators face regardless of their specialty. That is developing economically viable and sustainable solutions for collections management which are flexible enough to anticipate and adapt to a future that includes an increasing amount of time-based media and other conceptual or intangible works of art. Ms. Dunne, a trained paper conservator, has nobly volunteered to take on this challenge in addition to her regular duties because, as in many institutions facing cuts and austerity measures, there is no budget for a full time, time-based media conservator at the GMA. So, how is she faring and what advice does she have for the rest of us?
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art currently has around 20 time-based media works. The first challenge that Ms. Dunne faced was to locate each one and manipulate Mimsey, the GMA’s CMS, to make sure that each was properly characterized and documented. She stressed the importance of an artist questionnaire or interview at the time that each piece is acquired. This is the best way to insure that the information gathered is accurate and also an appropriate time to make a record of any contemporary technology that may be required to display the work (such as a VHS or laser disk player, projectors, or sound equipment). This information is especially important if your institution has purchased a master copy for loan and repeat display, as opposed to an exhibition copy that must be disposed of after a single showing. The legal implications of this had never occurred to me, nor the fact that proper and complete erasure of an artwork can be an issue. This was part of the underlying theme of Ms. Dunne’s talk which cast the conservator as ethicist. It became her job to answer legal and moral questions about the work such as ‘How many copies can be displayed simultaneously?’ and “Who should have access to the digital files?” She said that she was compelled to question who she was as a professional and that the exercise ultimately reinforced her confidence in her own knowledge base and the ethical principles which she cultivated during her training.
Ms. Dunne went on to say that one excellent source of guidance was “Matters in Media Art,” a collaboration between MoMA, SFMoMA, the New Art Trust (NAT), and Tate, which has an established time-based media lab. The project, which can be found here, is “designed to provide guidelines for care of time-based media works of art.” The templates provided her with a list of questions which assissted her research and shaped her approach to documentation. Gradually, she said that she began to “close the knowledge gap,” and to implement some quick organizational strategies. These included:
1. Physically consolidating time-based media works in storage and documenting their new locations
2. Entering new information fields and consistent keywords in the museum’s CMS in order to describe and track pieces and
3. Drafting a preservation management plan for electronic and time-based media, which included an “Equipment Asset Register” to track on site audio visual equipment and which could be programed to send an alert when that equipment was in danger of expiring
Ms. Dunne offered some excellent advise for any conservator who is faced with unfamiliar materials and formats, namely:
1. Trust Your Instincts because the broader principles of conservation will hold true and
2. Embrace the Chaos! because the best way to learn is by doing.
She also talked about the value of involving your colleagues such as curators, registrars, and IT staff. Sometimes it can be a challenge just to get others to recognize that a conservator should be involved from the beginning regarding decisions about display and storage, even if there is nothing currently “wrong” with the piece. Often, a general lack of experience with new media pieces leads to fear, and consequently, neglect. She explained that she was able to barter her time and expertise with time-based media conservators at other institutions whose experience proved to be invaluable. In fact, interinstitutional sharing can extend to those ancillary components like betamax machines or tape decks, and she suggested partnering with other institutions to create a repository of such devices. This approach can cultivate good will and also form a visible, public partnership.
In summary, Ms. Dunne found that while establishing her museum’s nascent draft of core guidelines for conserving and exhibiting time-based media was challenging, it was a rewarding experience. She reported that she made allies in the field, added to personal and institutional knowledge of the collection, and came to regard herself as “a conservator” rather than “a paper conservator” who was prepared for the challenges posed by an evolving artistic landscape. Her concluding words to institutions were these: “ If there is someone on your staff who wants to take on a similar project or responsibility for your time-based media collection, give them that freedom! You will benefit tremendously.” And to educators and conservation professionals: “Continue to act as mentors. I’ve been lucky to have the support of those in the field.”