Collaborating on Cultural Conservation

Posted July 25, 2008 at 5:46pm

You might want some help if you’re charged with keeping 130 million items in mint condition. Items that include 60 million manuscripts, 20 million books, 5 million maps, musical instruments, locks of hair and Walt Whitman’s walking stick.

As cultural conservation programs face staff cuts and funding deficits, the Library of Congress is emphasizing more collaboration with other archives and museums to protect its national treasures.

So late last week, the Library hosted a summit of preservation research scientists to give them the chance to share their projects and developments in the field.

Collaboration is not an entirely new concept for the Library. Diane Vogt-O’Connor, chief of the Library’s conservation division, said she gets three to four calls a week from institutions throughout the world seeking advice or help on conservation efforts.

But new challenges in cultural conservation, including the lack of a centralized research conservation laboratory in the United States and paltry funding of preservation science and university programs, are putting collections at risk.

A 2005 report by the Heritage Health Index found that more than 190 million artifacts in American institutions are in need of immediate conservation treatments.

To address such issues, about 60 participants came from institutions around the globe, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Library, with the hope of emulating the long-standing European model of strong joint partnerships and national support for cultural conservation.

“We’ve had no equivalent in North America,” said David Grattan, manager of the conversation research division at the Canadian Conservation Institute. “All of us here have come to the realization that in order to be effective in this business, we need to see more collaborative work.”

The summit was the Library’s first on the subject in about 15 years. While past summits have focused on traditional research priorities, organizers wanted to foster new partnerships, encouraging institutions to launch joint projects and share tips and technology.

Sharing new technology is a major priority as a select number of institutions take advantage of new tools of the trade, undergoing massive renovation and updates of laboratories. The Library is currently outfitting about 9,000 square feet of laboratory space with cutting-edge equipment.

Jeff Speakman, head of technical studies at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, said the Smithsonian launched a complete update of its laboratories about a year ago.

“There’s just a tremendous increase in the types of analytical equipment out there,” Speakman said of the renovation, which included “a complete replacement of obsolete equipment.”

But such renovations are costly, and museum specialists say money doesn’t come easily to conservation efforts these days.

“The amount of money that is going into cultural conservation is very small nationally,” said Carl Haber, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

New technology presents some challenges for preservationists as well. Materials created in the 20th and 21st centuries are often more volatile than older items, and museums struggle with how to effectively digitize their collections to expand access without putting fragile materials at risk.

“In the digital age, a lot of people consider just scanning and migrating and doing mass digitization for books to be preservation. We consider that access,” said Eric Hansen, chief of the library’s preservation research and testing division, noting that a lack of standardization on scanning, reformatting and migration has complicated the transition.

Vogt-O’Connor applauded digitization efforts as “extremely valuable experimental work,” but cautioned against losing sight of the underlying goal: quality assurance of collections.

“The priority is to think about how to keep those items alive until technology catches up for preservation,” she said.