Saturday, 15 March 2014

Preserving the Past - the Archival Challenge

  A few years ago, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. a young adult of sixteen years, travelling with his parents across the United States from Thunder Bay, was soaking in all the details of the vast array of contemporary and classical art. Standing alone in front of a massive and colourful painting he noticed a long thin line of minuscule flecks of on the floor directly beneath it. He assumed it was a result of paint dust having dropped.
     But how could that be? He recognized the work as Jackson Pollock’s. The painting couldn’t be more than fifty years old. With no one around to see him, the young man held up his hand and with his thumb as the release, snapped his index finger against the painting. The canvas shook a little and thousands of tiny flecks of paint trickled down its front to join the long thin line on the floor.
     Surprised, the young man stepped back. He had just caused further damage to a painting worth millions of dollars.
     A large tour group entered the gallery space. The tour guide stood in front of another large abstract and the guide explained that unlike classical works or popular art, this painting would never grow old because the subject matter that would ordinarily date the painting didn’t exist. There were no horses with buggies, old cars, or outdated clothing fashions.
     The young adult, now standing behind the tour group spoke up, “But the paintings don’t last forever, do they?”
      “Yes, you’re right,” said the tour guide. “This museum spends over one million dollars a year on restoration. Ninety percent of that money goes to repairing works of modern art, because artists today experiment often and they use all kinds of untested materials. For instance…” She pointed to the damaged painting. “Jackson Pollock did that painting using household acrylic paints. And he painted into raw canvas, so the paint is slowly destroying the canvas, and the canvas doesn’t protect the paint from acids and small pests.”
     The young man scooted into another room where he found a woman with a small trolley with all sorts of equipment and dials. She held a chart and a magnifying glass. She was staring intently at a Rembrandt painting. The young man recognized the famous painting from a book. He approached the woman and asked her what she was doing.
     “I’m analyzing the painting to take notes and see if the cracks have gotten any wider or that the paint is getting more yellow.”
     “How long will this painting last?” asked the young man.
     “Well, this painting is almost four hundred years old. At its rate of entropy, the painting should last maybe another eight hundred years. If we take care of it. Maybe longer.”
     Within the space of ten minutes, the sixteen year old was keenly aware that he had learned a valuable lesson about art. And fortunately, that lesson would travel with him for the rest of his life.
     Last Sunday at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, archivist Sarah Janes and a professional art conservator, Meaghan Eley hosted a workshop called “Preserving Your Past for the Future.” For three hours they offered all sorts of great advice about preserving photos, letters, artifacts, and digital files. They went into detail about what most quickly deteriorates what we love: people handling art improperly, earthquakes, shipping troubles, bad storing, fire, water, pests, pollutants, light, incorrect temperature, humidity, and something we rarely take into account as being important, yet obvious, disassociation.
     This is where we forget or neglect to place value on an object by understanding its meaning and recording it somewhere, like writing the date, place, names of people, and other information on a family photograph. When loved ones die vital pieces of information about family history can be lost if it isn’t recorded somewhere.  
     All this wonderful modern technology we have isn’t a reliable alternative for recording material. Digital versions of music and photography can vanish in an instant, never to return. Methods of keeping our past aren’t much better. Our ability to understanding what is worth keeping and how to keep it changes over time. Our current Conservative Government is an example. They are causing great harm to our collective memory by cutting funding, closing libraries, and firing scientists.
     If you want to preserve your family’s memories, don’t store what is most valuable in your basement or attic. Put your valuables in strong plastic bins that seal tightly. Back up computer files with external hard-drives, keeping files in different locations, including outside your home. Get your art framed properly with museum standard materials. If you’re an artist, don’t shirk on using the best products. Store fabric materials in plastic. Ziploc bags are great, apparently.

     And get proper advice. The Internet is full of bad advice as it is a huge topic. If you want some real detail about preserving something, contact the Thunder Bay Art Gallery or the City Archives and Records for a reference. You can also try these websites: and

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