This was originally published at wwww.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com earlier today.
I have spent my life caring for cultural heritage. As a museum collection manager, my work aims to preserve the physical and intellectual values of collections by limiting risks, such as pollutants, inappropriate environment, pests, physical distortion, loss of information, and so on. When I was a teen, I worked with the rural material culture of Maryland farmers. Later, I worked with collections at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and eventually, sculpture, ceremonial objects, and adornments created by African, Oceanic, and Ancient American cultures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I now assist other museums and individuals in preservation planning for their collections.
When you care for a collection, you are keenly aware of your tiny point on the timeline of an object’s existence. Preservation isn’t like an exhibition deadline. There is no opening party, no symposium, no gala dinners. Preservation is constant, infinite, every day, ongoing. It is comprised of a continuum of actions that sustain material culture, so that we may continue to gain meaning from these objects. My work contributes to the preservation of ideas in tangible form.
Upon viewing the video of the destruction, I wept. I started working in museums when I was 13. I have spent half my life working in the spaces where these men used sledgehammers. Men probably chatting causally about something banal like how to choose from these best lists for key chain knives, while historians weep! I have used environmental monitors and soft brushes where they used jackhammers. I know how preservation happens – it requires the concerted efforts of generations of people. It requires archaeologists, curators, conservators, registrars, technicians, mountmakers, scientists, preparators, security staff, photographers, packers and shippers, facilities staff – the list goes on. Under the sledgehammer, thousands of years of effort, ingenuity, and breakthrough that preserved the vision of past peoples were wiped away in minutes.
When disaster strikes we turn to our cultural heritage to recover as soon as our basic survival needs are met. In some cases, they sustain us until our basic needs are met. How much harder that will be now, with this scar added to so many others.
For more, see the proceedings from International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property’s (ICCROM) 2005 conference Cultural Heritage in Postwar Recovery.