This Friday, November 3 is Ask a Conservator Day. This is an annual event organized by the American Institute for Conservation that allows conservators to share their work and their role in cultural heritage preservation with the public. Conservators are key to preserving those artifacts, documents, monuments, and sites that reflect an account of our lives and the breadth of human creation. This Friday, conservators from around the world will be participating in Ask A Conservator Day. You can follow conversations or ask conservators questions by searching for #AskAConservator on social media platforms, or you can learn more on AIC’s information page.
In the meantime, here is an interview with Kate Morrison Danzis, a preservation specialist in the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress. Kate has had a long and varied career at the Library beginning with a short contract in 1996 as a conservation technician. She then returned to the Library in 2006 as a contract conservator for special projects and ultimately, in 2016 became a full time employee working on digital preparation projects in the Conservation Division.
Why is conservation important to you?
As a conservator, I consider myself a steward of our shared history and culture. And today, more than ever, preserving that history serves a vitally important function.
It’s hard to escape the fact that our politics, media, and society at large have become divided. Increasingly, the national conversation focuses on the things that make us different and push us apart. To me, that is where conservation can help. Even in a divided society, we have a shared history that can bring us together. The Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the letters of Martin Luther King, the works of Walt Whitman. These documents are part of our shared history and culture. Remembering that history is an important way to put aside those differences.
In my own small way, working as a conservator at the Library of Congress allows me to contribute to this goal by preserving the artifacts of our history. Furthermore, I am part of the Library of Congress’s digitization team. I stabilize and prepare collection items for digitization, with the ultimate goal of giving access of the vast Library of Congress collections to the larger community. By preserving the artifacts of our history and culture and working to make those materials available to the broadest audience possible, conservation is critically important in bridging these gaps.
What is the most important change happening in the conservation field now?
Conservation continues to evolve in many ways, but two changes strike me as especially important. First, like many fields, we need to ensure that conservation focuses on equity and inconclusion. The field must be representative of our larger society. So, we need to ensure that conservators are drawn from diverse backgrounds and experiences. This enriches our field and works to ensure that the priorities of the field are informed by diverse voices.
Second, today we are increasingly focused on accessibility. It is not sufficient to preserve and protect documents and works of art, if those pieces then reside in a museum or library archive. Instead, we need to ensure that those pieces of history are accessible to as many as possible. That goal is central to my work — as part of the Library of Congress’s digitization team, I work every day to prepare special collection items for digital capture. That allows the Library’s collections to be shared as widely as possible, without the need to physically visit the Library.
How did you become a conservator?
I was initially drawn to conservation because it combined many of my passions. As a child, I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things – by the end of grade school I could have opened a jewelry repair business! I also had a love for art and all things old – antiques, architecture, and dusty books found in attics. After graduating from college with a degree in art history and while trying to figure out my next step, I discovered the field of art conservation.
I knew immediately that the field of conservation would blend my love of art and historic objects and working with my hands into a meaningful career. From there I did some investigation and found various pre-graduate school opportunities in the broader field of conservation. At that time, I explored working with a variety of materials, easel and mural paintings, architecture, outdoor sculpture, and monuments. I also worked at the Library of Congress as a conservation technician working on political cartoons and illustrations, as well as the occasional book. To deepen my background, I returned to school, pursuing a master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Columbia University. After graduate school I eventually found my way back to the Library of Congress, where I worked on an array of collections with the Conservation Division, ultimately joining the Library’s digitization preparation team.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
There are many aspects of my job that I love. On a very basic level, I find great pleasure tackling challenges and finding solutions. Working on the digital preparation team, I am responsible for preparing thousands of special collection items every year for digitization, ensuring they are legible and can be safely handled during image capture. This often includes relatively quick and simple conservation treatments (for example, surface cleaning dirt, mending tears, filling losses) to more complex treatments and housing challenges. Not only does this work help to preserve and protect the objects, but it facilitates the digitization process to allow the Library’s collections to be accessible on-line. It gives me great work satisfaction to improve the state of the collections and to make them accessible to the public.
But putting aside my own work, if I had to identify what makes me love my work – it is the people I work with. I am fortunate to work with a large and diverse team of conservators and specialists that are dedicated to their work and genuine experts in their field. I deeply respect and admire my colleagues and find it incredibly inspiring to go to work every day.
Why is it important to save cultural heritage?
As I reflected earlier, conservators act as stewards of our shared history and culture. This heritage is what binds us together and creates a common understanding of who we are. We cannot move forward and agree on solutions to problems without having a shared understanding of that history.
But, on a more personal note, I get chills holding a book I know was made 200 hundred years ago, or reading letters written by civil war soldiers to their loved ones at home, or marveling at the beauty of 16th century illuminated manuscript. These items exist because so many people along the way cherished and took care to preserve them. Each item gives insight into the lives of those who came before us. They are the physical manifestation of our shared history. To me, the importance of preserving that history for the next generation cannot be overstated.
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