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What Should the Lifespan of Art Be, and Who Decides?

Conserving the skeleton of an Irish Elk (photograph via Christian Nitard/Muséum de Toulouse)
Conserving the skeleton of an Irish Elk (photograph via Christian Nitard/Muséum de Toulouse)

A topic in art conservation that’s often overlooked is: when do we stop preserving an object? Nothing, not even the sturdiest paleolithic stone relic, in a museum or archive is immortal. Everything has its expiration date. It’s something that more and more preservationists and collection managers are looking at in evaluating what to give preservation resources to, and for how long.

A book that has met its deadline (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
A book that has met its deadline (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Over at Central Science, Sarah Everts wrote an engaging article on this relatively new study of “collections demography,” concentrating on a colloquium held earlier this month. Called “Modelling in Collection Management,” it was organized by the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at the Bartlett School for Graduate Studies at University College London. The university has been leading the way in bringing together analysis of climate change — both outdoors and inside the museum and archive “indoor environments” — and other conditions into a form of modeling that is both quantitative and qualitative for looking at the future and expectations for taking care of objects. A similar discussion was held last year at  the Library of Congress, which involved University of College London, as well as other cultural and academic institutions. It looked at the evolution of collections of heritage objects and how they change and grow and degrade over time, and particularly at their “point of failure,” like a battery run dry.

Everts gives the example of David Beckham’s fame-making goal kick of 1996 as an object of potential preservation. Sure, that may seem kind of silly in regards to, say, a piece of fine art, but it has cultural and historical significance and, most importantly, popularity. As she writes: “So you could argue that this ball should end up in a British museum, given Beckham’s huge impact on sports culture in the UK at the turn of the 21st century. Kept under the right temperature, humidity, and light conditions, a leather object like his football could potentially last thousands of years before degrading into a mess of gelatinized protein. But really, should a museum pay the energy bills to keep his ball under optimal relative humidity, light levels and temperature so that it lasts for a millennium or two to come? Will people care about David Beckham’s ball in 50, 100, or even 500 years?”

Conservation at the U.S. Pacific Air Forces of a flag that flew over a 1941 battle (photograph via U.S. Pacific Air Forces)
Conservation at the U.S. Pacific Air Forces of a flag that flew over a 1941 battle (photograph via U.S. Pacific Air Forces)

After all, if museums are there to preserve our heritage, shouldn’t they reflect what the broader public care about? Of course, this idea is far from perfect, as some of the most valuable things in museums and archives are those that, at the time they were made or granted significance, the public could care less about, like artists who died in obscurity or writers whose work long went unappreciated. Crowd-sourcing might not make sense, but then who decides what’s worth giving the best preservation resources?

Perhaps while something is at its peak of popularity, it’s best to let it deteriorate a little out in the open than keep it locked away to make it into the next centuries. With an expanded look at this by other institutions, a more accurate model for predicting what, and why, we should save could be implemented. Nothing is forever, but the lifespan of art objects is something that can be predicted, and controlled. It’s up to us to figure out what its expiration date should be.

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