By Miguel Angel Corzo
It has been a year and a half since the Getty Conservation Institute moved into its permanent home at the Getty Center. During that time, the other programs of the Getty Trust—the Museum, the Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Information Institute, the Education Institute for the Arts, and the Grant Program—have joined us here at this spectacular site overlooking the city of Los Angeles.
This process of bringing together in one place a variety of programs dedicated to the visual arts and the humanities is creating precisely the kind of potential for synergy that Harold Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Trust since 1981, envisioned when he conceived the idea of the Getty Center. As Mr. Williams himself put it, one reason for wanting to have all the programs at a single location was "so that different perspectives could interact with each other, and we could realize the richness that would result from the interaction of varied points of view. Out of that, new perspectives, new knowledge, and different ways of defining the issues would emerge."
In everything from formal meetings to chance encounters, the people of the Getty are engaging in just this sort of exchange. While each program has an individual mission—and activities growing out of that mission—collaboration between the programs is increasingly important. Already the Getty programs are working together in a variety of ways. Some of these efforts—as well as the role of conservation in each of the Getty programs—are described in this issue of the GCI newsletter (see Conservation and the Programs of the Getty Trust). Yet all that has occurred thus far is only a preview of the future. I anticipate that in the years ahead, we will see even greater multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary exploration of ways to increase the appreciation, preservation, and enjoyment of the world's cultural heritage. This is the unique opportunity and challenge that the Getty offers.
With the public opening of the Getty Center this month, the programs of the Getty begin a new phase in their development. The Center's opening marks a change in leadership. In January 1998, after guiding the Getty Trust in its enormous transformation from being primarily museum to becoming a multifaceted and international cultural institution, Harold Williams will retire, and Barry Munitz will begin his tenure as president and CEO of the Trust. The GCI has prepared for this moment of change with the implementation of its strategic plan and with a new organizational structure that recognizes and encourages multidisciplinary teamwork, thereby giving the Institute's staff the chance to work more dynamically.
Following the adoption of its strategic plan—which builds upon the Institute's experience in research, training, documentation, and fieldwork, and upon our well-established international relationships—the GCI's staff began developing a series of projects to serve the goals of the plan. These projects are briefly described elsewhere in this issue (see New Projects of the Getty Conservation Institute). While the projects cover a wide range of issues, they all grow out of three basic Institute activities: exploring new ideas, solving problems, and disseminating knowledge and information.
Exploring New Ideas
The conservation profession is beginning a deeper examination of the philosophies that should guide its work and of ways to broaden awareness of the role of cultural heritage in our lives. This reflection is essential for the field of conservation to mature and for it to achieve the kind of public support required to preserve the cultural heritage that benefits us all.
One of the tasks the GCI has set for itself is to encourage, in a participatory way, the exploration of new ideas. We seek to become a gathering place for intellectual discourse on conservation and cultural heritage—a discourse that can lead to a greater understanding of what we value in heritage, of the role it plays in human and societal development, of the forces that influence conservation, and of the need for interdisciplinary collaboration in protecting and preserving the cultural legacy left to us.
Take, for example, the issue of what we will save. Because of the technological means at our disposal, our generation has ways to save so much more than previous generations. But in practical terms, we cannot afford to preserve everything. Choices still have to be made. A conservation specialist may know what is necessary to conserve a 19th-century basket from Micronesia or the site of a small 10th-century Maya settlement, but who should decide if either of those should actually be saved? And what should we preserve from the 20th century as evidence of our own passage through time and history?
The choice of what will be saved should be based on a public examination of values. We need greater public awareness so that decisions regarding conservation grow out of an active reflection on the benefits that we derive from our cultural heritage.
This raises a more fundamental question that should be publicly addressed—what is the value of cultural heritage to society? How do we justify the expenditure of resources on preservation? All too often we have lost heritage through either outright destruction or neglect. If it is valued, it is frequently because it is seen as having economic worth. Ultimately, we must remember that the worth of cultural heritage cannot be measured solely in economic terms. It does more than produce income—it provides social cohesion, a sense of identity and pride, and a link with generations that preceded us. These things have great worth, but they are difficult to put a price on. No society can remain strong and vital without them. Yet conveying the importance of cultural heritage to the public at large remains a continuing challenge.
One of the ways the GCI will be addressing these and other issues is through its new activity, the Agora. As we continue our work developing new solutions to conservation problems, we want to stimulate with the same intellectual vigor the type of dialogue and discourse that will examine the important issues about the values of society and the relationship between society and cultural heritage, fostering a recognition of all that cultural heritage contributes to the well-being of the human spirit.
As part of the Institute's commitment to solving conservation problems, the GCI's strategic plan specifically calls for the development of solutions to three significant problems in conservation. Selecting the problems on which to focus was difficult because there are so many areas in conservation that call out for attention. However, in considering the expertise of the GCI staff and the existing needs in the field, we settled on three important areas.
The first is collections in hot, humid climates. High temperatures coupled with high relative humidity can pose a substantial threat to collections, yet the use of sophisticated technology to control the environments of these collections has proven inappropriate for a variety of reasons. In fact, some collections in hot, humid regions—without the benefit of elaborate environmental controls—have remained relatively stable. GCI staff will be looking at practical and sustainable strategies for mitigating deterioration to collections, ways that work with the environment rather than against it.
A second problem deals with preserving archaeological sites in hot, humid, tropical areas—specifically the Maya sites of Mexico and the Central American countries. Despite being separated by national borders, these sites share similar problems. There is no reason why overall solutions to these problems cannot be developed collectively and applied in partnership. The GCI, having already established a relationship with cultural authorities in these countries, will be serving as a catalyst to assist not only in the development of treatment solutions for stone, stucco, and mortar deterioration, but also in the creation of a management plan for the region as a whole.
Finally, the Institute will be continuing its many years of work on the conservation of earthen architecture. The use of earth as a building material was common historically, and it remains so today—it has been estimated that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the world's structures are made from earth. In the past, GCI staff have studied consolidant use for preserving earthen materials and have developed seismic strengthening techniques for adobe structures. Building on that expertise, the Institute has initiated a comprehensive project to identify the critical factors involved in the deterioration of earthen structures and to develop solutions to those problems.
In addition to these three issues, the Institute will be conducting research in a number of other areas, including developing practical guidelines for the reburial of sites, testing new techniques for surface cleaning of objects, and studying new methods for identifying organic materials.
Knowledge and Information
From the beginning, the Institute has been an information organization, disseminating knowledge through training courses, publications, and formal and informal exchanges with colleagues in conservation. The information function has grown over time, and today we consider it to be one of our primary responsibilities.
In our early years, our focus was on service to conservation professionals by providing them with information to assist them in their work. While that activity remains an essential part of our mission, we have expanded our outreach efforts to include the general public, since we recognize that public understanding and support are critical to the long-term survival of our cultural heritage. We see our constituency composed not only of conservation specialists but of anyone with an interest in learning more about cultural heritage and the ways in which it enhances everyday life.
This two-tiered approach—reaching out with information to conservation professionals and to the general public—is reflected in the variety of the GCI's activities. Our publications run the gamut from technical works on conservation to our new Conservation and Cultural Heritage series, designed for the general reader. The Institute's Web site includes articles for the interested public, as well as abstracts of every GCI scientific research project. For those directly involved in art and cultural heritage, we continue to organize meetings and conferences, such as our March 1998 conference on the preservation of contemporary art. We also seek to engage the general public through exhibitions, notably the September 1998 Landmarks exhibition at the Getty Center.
In all that we do, information dissemination plays a role. Adding value to that information is part of that role, either through packaging information, as we do in publishing Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts, or through increasing information on a subject, as we do through our project activities. Our objective is to make that information as useful as possible to the user, be it a wall paintings conservator, an archaeological site manager, or the chemistry student considering a career in conservation. We want the information that we transmit to contribute to professional dialogues and public debates on what should be preserved and how and why. We want to give those who support the conservation of cultural heritage—and those who actively do the work—the informational tools they need to make that conservation possible.
An important element of the GCI will remain our emphasis on seeking alliances with other organizations that share our goals and are willing to explore new ways of securing the future of our cultural heritage. Similarly, with respect to the new field projects of the Institute, we are renewing partnerships and forging new ones with regional and national authorities in a number of countries, including China, Israel, Mali, Mexico, and Tunisia. As always in the course of our fieldwork, we expect to learn as much from our partners as we hope they will learn from us.
Within the Institute, as we restructure our organization to further promote a team approach to projects, we are also engaged in a new effort to encourage staff excellence. The strength of any institution is directly related to the ability, dedication, and morale of the people who are a part of it. We need to do what we can to enhance the talents and the spirit of our staff, in order to maintain the high quality of work that has characterized the Institute in the past.
By the year 2001, I expect that we will have honed our skills at teamwork through our diverse projects, capitalized on the presence of our sister organizations here at the Getty Center through the sharing of ideas and through collaboration, and completed our strategic plan in a way that helps strengthen conservation and cultural heritage around the world. I anticipate a continuation of the process we've now begun: shaping and reshaping a vision of an organization that is focused on preserving the past—not for its own sake but for a greater understanding of how, through that past, we can build a better future.
Miguel Angel Corzo is the director of the Getty Conservation Institute.