Next month sees the opening of Conserving Active Matter (along with Richard Tuttle: What Is the Object?). The exhibition is the culmination of “Cultures of Conservation,” a research initiative launched in 2012 and generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The culmination of this ten-year-long project coincides with the beginning of Bard Graduate Center’s thirtieth anniversary year; it has occupied one-third of the institution’s history. Seen from this perspective, it is worth considering the project and its impact.

Let’s begin with some numbers. Over the ten years of the project, “Cultures of Conservation” will have published five books, launched three exhibitions, appointed six fellows as well as one visiting professor and one full professor, generated 19 new courses, hosted 34 class visits of 39 discrete speakers, and hosted 52 events with 145 speakers. The concluding symposium in May will bring 20 scholars from India and Japan to explore “conservation thinking” in these two countries, realizing to the fullest extent possible the vision of plural cultures in the project’s title.

It would be easy, just based on these numbers, to celebrate the impact of this project on BGC and the world. Urbis et orbis.

But digging deeper, I think there is even more to consider. First of all, from the start, the project was based on the idea that conservation was a natural conversation partner for humanistic material studies. That meant that BGC’s own mix of history, art history, anthropology, and archaeology—and later material science—had to be part of the project. This might seem obvious to us, but from the perspective of the wider world, it models something new and innovative. Second, governance as well as institutional diplomacy was served by the creation of a local steering committee of New York-area conservators and professors. This group met annually to review progress towards our stated goals, and in addition, it opened up new possibilities of inquiry as well as employment and research possibilities for students and faculty. The research project, once it launched, unfolded along the axes of four working groups, corresponding to faculty strengths (history, philosophy, Indigenous ontologies, materials). When the project shifted into exhibition mode, the heads of the working groups became a curatorial committee that spent a year talking about the project and helping its curator, Soon Kai Poh, a conservator hired for this purpose, make an exhibition out of the lot of ideas that had bubbled up during the working group years.

BGC launched its Focus Project exhibitions in 2009. Conserving Active Matter is one such exhibition. Developed and executed by Bard Graduate Center faculty and postdoctoral fellows in collaboration with students in the MA and PhD programs, these exhibitions bring together faculty, exhibitions, and publications staff in a way that had not happened before. The “Cultures of Conservation” initiative brought together faculty to work on a project that had curricular, hiring, events programming, publishing, and exhibition components. This kind of project-based work has become more common in Europe because of changes in research funding over the past two decades. (There it also includes funding for doctoral students.) It remains rare in the US; even more rare, anywhere, the decade-long length of “Cultures of Conservation.” So, in addition to the value of ‘what’ was produced—an entirely new relationship between the field of conservation and the humanities disciplines as well as a new sense of what conservation itself could be—we have also learned from the ‘how.’

This model of an all-encompassing long-term research project provides a glimpse of how BGC could develop in the years ahead. Even five years would clearly have been too short to reap the full benefits of this project. A well-chosen multi-year focus would be a way for BGC to make sure that it always realizes its potential: to retain its “start-up,” exploratory playfulness while also bringing considerable resources to bear on a project of significance to the wider world. This would harness the research mission of the institution and infuse its teaching with a constant supply of energy. It would provide a logic to exhibition-making as a form of publication. It would, finally, define our purpose as standing at the edge of knowledge looking out into the not-yet known. Whether any of this happens or not, the end of “Cultures of Conservation” shows us our possible future.