Miguel Angel Corzo has been Director of the Getty Conservation Institute since 1991. Prior to his appointment, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Friends of the Arts of Mexico Foundation, where he organized Mexico: Splendor of Thirty Centuries, one of the three most successful museum exhibitions in U.S. history. He earlier served as the GCI's Director of Special Projects. He is a member of the Conservation Committee of the International Council of Museums and in 1995 was appointed by President Clinton to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee.
He spoke with Jeffrey Levin, the Editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: The GCI's basic mission is the preservation of cultural heritage. Why does preserving our cultural heritage matter? Why should we put resources into it? Why should we care?
Miguel Angel Corzo: This is a question not only for conservation but also for the arts and culture. And it's a question for many countries, because we all are beginning to recognize the difficult choices we have to make in terms of what we can spend on our social environment.
I believe that the arts and humanities are an essential part of life. They provide a sense of identity, of belonging, of integration with the spirit. They really are the food of the soul. You can't stop feeding the soul if you want to survive.
Culture and the arts are inherent to humankind. The ability and the inclination to create are the essence of what distinguishes human beings from the other species. There are no countries, and there are no people, who have not in one way or another tried to transcend the basic problems of survival and enter into another realm. Survival was pretty basic for our ancestors of 17,000 years ago, but even then, they were painting pictures on cave walls at Lascaux. Preservation of the cultural heritage is necessary for the survival of the spirit.
How do you think the issues in conservation have changed during the GCI's first 10 years of operation?
In terms of conservation itself, the issues are very similar. We're still dealing with the deterioration of materials—and materials continue to decay much as they did 10 years ago. Perhaps the real change is in a clearer recognition of the fragility of our cultural heritage and how it is threatened not only by the forces of nature but, to a large extent, by the actions of people. At the same time, conservation is now taking on new dimensions, utilizing tools such as management and marketing, which had not been used to the extent that they're being used now. That's a big change.
The other change is one of perception by the general public about what we preserve and the importance of preservation itself. We've broadened what we define as our cultural heritage and changed what we value.
What do you think has prompted that change in perception?
Well, in part, this incredible movement of collecting everything. There wasn't as much interest in conservation until collecting just took off. Now people have been collecting for years—stamps, photographs, textiles—and they're seeing their collections deteriorate. People are asking how they can preserve their personal heritage: their photographs, letters, embroideries, and other family treasures. I think a concern about preserving the family heritage has helped change perceptions about conservation's importance. The need to maintain our diverse cultural identities is also a driving force of conservation.
What about negative developments? Are there problems that are greater now than they were 10 years ago?
I would say yes. Pollution has increased, desertification continues to happen, unplanned development goes on, and the onslaught of mass tourism continues to destroy things. Contemporary society—the way we live, work, travel, and exploit the environment—is creating problems that can have terrible consequences for cultural heritage.
Will the issues in conservation be any different 10 years from now?
I don't know that the issues will be different, but the way we look at them will be different. The world is going through a big transformation in every aspect of life. We've gone from an agricultural to an industrial to an informational society. What we now understand is that information and knowledge have a value as a service—and that's changing the course of conservation. This new access to information means that we have whole new ways of looking at and thinking about a problem in conservation.
Why is public awareness of conservation important? Why isn't it enough for the specialists like the GCI to just do the work?
Because we live in a world of information. There is a tremendous amount of information being produced and disseminated—and it's competing with other information. If you only get one type of information, you won't be getting the total picture. People have to make choices about what matters in their lives, and if their choices are guided by information that doesn't recognize the value of their cultural heritage, then most likely the preservation of that heritage will be neglected. If no one hears about conservation of cultural heritage, it may become something that falls by the wayside in the decision-making process.
So conservation can't be done without the public, because ultimately the public makes the choice about where its resources go—what gets saved and what doesn't.
Sure. And the choices keep getting harder.
That raises another question. How do communities and nations go about making the difficult choices of what will be saved and what will be allowed to vanish?
Up to now, a lot of the choices have been delegated to the experts. But that's only a partial answer, because the experts have to base the choices on what society values. Society cannot reach an honest conclusion about what it values if it's not informed. That's why it's necessary to bring to society a dialogue about what we value in order to make the difficult choices about what we should conserve. And it really should be a dialogue among many elements of society, not only the experts. Poets and philosophers, painters and factory workers, computer specialists, managers, professionals, and everyone else—from schoolchildren to senior citizens—should be involved in the choice. Otherwise, things are left to random forces, such as war or time.
It's a paradox of contemporary life that while we have the capacity to preserve for the future what we really value in our society, we may fail to do it. At this moment we are saving mountains of records in paper form and optical disks of trillions of things, because we feel those are very important. Are these the things we're going to bequeath to future generations? cds and warehouses of paper? Is that going to be our grand statement on the 20th century to the future? I certainly hope not, but we're fast approaching that.
So the first step in conservation generally should be a discussion about values.
Yes. We first need to figure out what we really value collectively, and then make decisions about what we preserve on the basis of what we value. Dialogue is important, because everybody should help make those decisions. I, for instance, would love to bring the decision-making process to a third-grade class and let the children decide what they would save, say, in the choice between an object which could be of their own or an object which could be of their community or their world. It would be fascinating. In a sense that's what we did with our Picture L.A. project—giving a group of young people cameras and asking them to photograph the landmarks they value in their community. What they came up with was, I think, a shock to everybody.
What does the conservation community itself need to do to increase public awareness of conservation and its importance?
Members of the conservation community—conservators, conservation scientists, museum curators, site managers, and others connected to the field—should start talking to audiences outside their professional circle. It's not enough to reach out to groups already convinced of conservation's importance. We need to be convincing the unconvinced or the uninformed. And I think we can.
People in conservation are fascinated by the work that they do. And they must be, otherwise they wouldn't be doing it. Well, isn't it important to transmit to others the knowledge and the passion that they bring to their work? Whenever I've seen a layperson look at people doing conservation, I have seen nothing but awe and admiration for their skill and ability. Why not make that more public?
I also think that the conservation community has to convey to the public that our efforts are not simply aimed at mending objects but also at rescuing information from loss. The value of our cultural heritage goes far beyond its aesthetic virtues. It's a repository of information about who we are and what we've achieved. It's that information, as much as anything, that we're trying to preserve. If we are able to communicate that to the rest of the world, then in this world of information, there can be a new understanding of what we do and why conservation is important.
The GCI is one program of seven that make up the Getty Trust. In May it's moving to the new Getty Center here in Los Angeles, and over the course of a year it will be joined by the other entities of the Trust. How will this move enhance what the Institute does? Do you see the GCI working more closely with the other programs once they are all gathered together at the Center?
Absolutely. It's already happening. Perhaps the most recent example of collaboration is last May's Mediterranean conference on preserving archaeological sites, which we coorganized with the Getty Museum. Being together at the Getty Center will mean the greater possibility of chance encounters that can lead to the creation of more collaborative projects. It will also mean more discussions with our colleagues that will help us look at conservation issues from different points of view. Although we may not have full-fledged collaborative ventures in everything we do, certainly there will be more influencing of one another. Of course, because of the impending move, the Getty programs are already beginning to plan more collaborative activities.
What kinds of things?
Well, for instance, we are collaborating with the Center for the History of Art and the Humanities on a series of lectures and seminars. We are planning joint exhibitions with the Museum, and we are working with the Center for Education in the Arts on ways of disseminating more information about conservation. These things are already in the works.
Are there linkages with outside organizations and institutions that conservation as a field—and the GCI in particular—needs to make?
We're exploring that all the time. We are, for example, trying to use a lot of the research in materials science utilized by industry to figure out better ways of solving conservation problems. We're meeting with organizations that deal with tourism to convey to them a different message about conservation—and I believe we have made great inroads there.
We are talking now to management organizations, because conservation management is a whole new field. So other kinds of enterprises—like aerospace, tourism, or management—that traditionally had nothing to do with conservation have become linked to conservation in various ways in the last 10 years.
Ten years from now what would you like to see different at the Institute—and what would you like to see the same?
I would like to see the same exceptional intellectual quality and high level of dedication and discipline that the staff currently has. I'm sure those things will remain. What I hope to see change is the way that we go about bringing the message of conservation to the professions, as well as to the outside world. We have to become an institution that shows new paths for providing information. Much of what we do—and will continue to do—involves training, research, documentation, and special projects. But running as a theme through all of these is the importance of information. In a variety of ways, we are an information organization. We process information, and we add value to information before passing it on. The knowledge we have is a valuable commodity which has to be transmitted in some manner or another, and we have to find better mechanisms to do that.
I think that in 10 years' time, we will be adding value to information and disseminating information in ways that create a better understanding of the processes of conservation, and that make conservation more accessible to larger numbers of people. That is the way we're going to be able to preserve what we cherish.