“Cultures of Conservation”: The Mellon Initiative
At its core, the proposed initiative is an attempt to connect the perspective of conservation to an interdisciplinary notion of the “human sciences.” This refers to the way in which humanities disciplines such as Art History, Anthropology, Archaeology and History provide complementary means of understanding how human beings live and work in the world. The history of “Conservation” may explain something of why its insights have not yet been fully integrated into this academic pursuit, even as the study of materials and materiality has moved to center stage. Yet, “Conservation,” in the very best sense, conjoins data derived from instrumentation and technology, long experience of hand and eye, and scholarly understanding of how and why things were done in order to bring an object back to life. In the past, this knowledge has been harvested mostly in museums and galleries and harnessed mostly to curatorial practice and exhibitions. We wish to bring our cross-disciplinary perspective on the study of objects into a conversation with conservators’ questions. This relationship has constituted, up to now, an enormous gap in the academic world. Even as more and more professors in the social sciences and humanities talk about objects, how many have talked about them with conservators, let alone worked alongside them? The number of students with this perspective may be even fewer.
We propose to build on our long experience working between museums and universities by incorporating the concepts and practices of “conservation” into our curriculum. We aim to explore the various meanings of conservation as we define them; that is, the study of materials, techniques of making, and practices of use and re-use. Meanings would be drawn from the full spectrum of object study, ranging from scientific analysis to anthropological examination. For three-dimensional objects especially, the conservation process is often the only way we can learn about how something was made. Educating the students and scholars of the future through curricular innovation and post-graduate fellowship research at the BGC are ways in which our project can contribute to higher education in the United States.
The project aims to work on three levels: current students, emerging scholars in the humanities, and conservators. New courses devoted to conservation perspectives, and augmented existing courses will link the study of materiality directly to conservation. Two two-year post-graduate fellowships aim to bring young scholars in the humanities to New York to pair with conservators or conservation scientists on a project. In the second year both will teach a course on their project. And a Visiting Professorship will bring a conservator to the BGC for a year of teaching in our Focus project, resulting in an exhibition done jointly with the students in the course. Integrating these three elements amounts to a curricular transformation, and modelling what this would look like is the goal of the Mellon Initiative.
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