NDSR


A Tour of the Whitney Museum’s Conservation Lab

My NDSR position at Small Data Industries began in July 2018 (blog post about our lab to follow!) and on my third day, I met with my ARLIS mentor Farris Wahbeh for our initial NDSR/ARLIS mentor meeting. Farris is head of Research Resources at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a dynamic and progressive position that oversees the museum’s archives, reference, periodicals, documentation, records management, and special collections. In other words, he works to unify all of museum’s resources, from printed artworks to digital records.

 

     

 

After our introduction, Farris led me on a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, including the archives, library, conservation labs and the newly-built study center (a space where external researchers can physically interact with art in the collection) — all of which boast beautiful views of the city.

 

     

 

The conservation spaces are particularly innovative and inspiring — the labs meld together in an open floor-plan that fluidly and catalytically promotes trans-departmental conversations and collaboration. In other words, I observed oil paintings from the 1920’s alongside contemporary art and technical-mechanical pieces. In terms of the museum itself, Farris expounded upon the Whitney’s exceptional architecture — each side of its exterior mimics the defining features of the neighborhood below. (There is an impressive — and interactive — article about the museum’s architecture here).

 

     

 

Most significantly, upon entering Conservation, it was by fortuitous coincidence that we stumbled upon Richard Bloes, Senior Technician and Reinhard Bek, New Media Conservator fine-tuning a time-based media piece titled Searcher, 1966 by James L. Seawright — a 6-foot metal framework with plastic and electronic parts that senses and reacts to environmental light. We also explored the media conservation lab (the only room that has a door and lacks the floor-to-ceiling windows!). This is where digital art pieces are processed and archived upon acquisition.

 

     

 

I was truly stunned by the beautiful design of the museum and by the holistic, fluid boundaries — both physical and intellectual — between the labs and departments (what Farris’ amalgamate role directly advocates). Following the tour, Farris and I went to Fig and Olive to chat more about my project, my recent move to Brooklyn and my analogous PhD research. I am very appreciative to Farris for graciously offering to mentor me through my year with NDSR Art and for facilitating my relationship with the local ARLIS network. For our next meeting, Small Data very much looks forward to welcoming him to our lab in Industry City, Brooklyn!


An Introduction: “I can’t believe this is my life.”

After nearly 11 years living in Chicago and finally finding a winter coat that actually kept me warm, it was quite surreal to get picked for the National Digital Stewardship Residency in Art. Within roughly 60 days, I managed to completely change my life and I packed up my four cats, one dog, and one boyfriend (now fiancé!), and moved across country. Now that I’m settled in Philadelphia and I have official business cards—hard proof that I am, in fact, not dreaming—the surreal feeling has been replaced with a general sense of “I can’t believe this is my life but start believing it because you’ve got work to do.”

Here are a few of the “I can’t believe this is my life” moments from the first 2 months of this residency:

  1. Immersion Week. Five eight-hour days of digital preservation-related presentations from truly remarkable leaders in this field, including: Sheila Rabun, Community and Communications Officer, IIIF; Jacob Nadal, Director of Preservation at the Library of Congress; Anne Young, Manager of Rights and Reproductions, Indianapolis Museum of Art; George Blood, George Blood LP; Emily Rafferty, Head Librarian and Archivist, Baltimore Museum of Art; Sumitra Duncan, Head of Web Archiving Program, Frick Art Reference Library; Dragan Espenschied, Preservation Director, Rhizome; Virginia Rutledge, PIPE Arts Group.
  2. Getting our official resident portraits taken on the great staircase at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  3. Every time I’ve been introduced as the “NDSR Art Resident working with the time-based media collection.”
  4. Seeing the time-based media collection in person for the first time.
  5. Touring the Museum’s offsite storage facilities.
  6. Meeting the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden (OMG).

Let me backtrack a bit and explain why this project exists and why I’ve subsequently changed my entire life for it.

The time-based media (TBM) collection is the fastest growing collection at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. With this fact in hand, I almost need not say more. It advocates for itself. It is why this project exists and why I’ve been selected to dedicate my time to nothing else for 12 months.

At present, there are just under 100 time-based media (TBM) artworks in the Museum’s permanent collection, and a number of TBM acquisitions are already on the horizon. However, there is no infrastructure in place to properly handle, preserve, or manage TBMs. To date, these complex artworks have been acquired using existing museum policies and practices, which are insufficient to meet their documentation and preservation needs.

In the Summer of 2017, the Museum hired Mona Jimenez and Martha Singer as outside consultants, two experts in the field of TBM preservation. Together, they performed an eight-day assessment of the TBM collection and compiled their findings and recommendations in a comprehensive report. On my first day, I was handed this report and it has since become the jumping-off point for all of my work.

In 2 months I have: collected and read hundreds of resources; caught up on the status of existing institutional knowledge of the TBM collection; interviewed numerous stakeholders; and applied to present at two conferences (so far) and made arrangements to attend four. I have played with a FRED machine, explored Preservica, and become the go-to person in my office for questions about The Museum System (TMS). I recently performed a visual inspection of the collection’s 16mm films, begun the process of sifting through the collection’s Object Files, and collaborated with the Contemporary and Conservation Departments on writing an executive summary of the assessment to present to  the Museum’s Executive stakeholders. I’ve attended the Museum’s Contemporary Conservation Working Group meetings, plan to attend the ARLIS Mid-Atlantic meeting later this month, and will be visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota for a Host Enrichment Session to learn about Mia and their NDSR Art project.

Obviously, there’s a lot to be done, and I couldn’t be happier about it.