All Your Shreds Are Belong To Us

14 12 2011

I’m always interested in stories about merging new technologies and old, analog and digital, human and computer teams.  Here’s a good one:  DARPA ran a contest last month, with a $50,000 prize,  in which contestants were asked to use technologies to re-assemble shredded documents. The winning team, All Your Shreds Are Belong To Us, “used custom-coded, computer-vision algorithms to suggest fragment pairings to human assemblers for verification.   In total, the winning team spent nearly 600 man-hours developing algorithms and piecing together documents that were shredded into more than 10,000 pieces.”    Here are some photos.   The forum discussions look pretty interesting.

Yeah, I think that type of help could come in handy for re-assembling  letters destroyed by iron-gall ink such as those in my photo above.  And I’d like to know more about those mysterious “human assemblers” and their techniques!

On Collaboration

31 03 2011

Friend and Smithsonian Conservator Nora Lockshin wrote a lovely post on The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and The Smithsonian about her research on artist Adelia Gates in response to my question on a watercolor I treated.  At the end of her post she wrote about the serendipity of finding mention of a flower in Gates’s writings, and of that flower being present in the painting I worked on.  Another layer of serendipity unfolded for me upon reading this – Adelia Gates found that flower by rock-climbing in Colorado.  As the director of the American Alpine Club Library, which is the world’s largest resource on mountaineering and climbing, that full-circle pleases me no end.

Zen and the Art of Backing Removal

25 05 2010

Click on the image to see more photos

Peeling an acidic window mat away from the front of a very fragile watercolor may not sound like a fun way to spend a few hours to most people. To me, once I get beyond the fear of doing damage, it is extremely satisfying meditation.

At first, I pry about with different tools, feeling my way to find which scalpel, which knife will work the best with the very particular nature of the paper to be removed. Some move down to the artwork’s surface too quickly for safety. Others are not sharp enough, or are too sharp, or have to be held at the wrong angle. As I work, though, I find the combination and sequence of tools, the right angle, the best direction. I begin to feel as though I understand the way the fibers lay and how to move the tools to lift them with less effort. I enter a bit of a trance, a zone. There is trial and error and a narrowing of attention to the minute level of micron-thick layers of paper that become my world.

I have to remind myself not to get too comfortable – there is always a fragment of something stuck in the paper to block the way, a clump of glue that trips the knife and brings it close to piercing the soft paper of the artwork below, but a sense of right movement develops. It is akin to any other kind of sustained focus, like writing well, or the kind of running that is fast and light and free. I want to go forever. I become mind-less in the best zen sense.

My hand starts to cramp and my neck strained from keeping it at such an odd tilt, but I want to keep going, unwilling to let the learning go, knowing I’ll have to relearn the paper and the flow of the knife the next time I sit down to work on this project. I stop, clean up, and realize I am much calmer than when I first sat down – the reward of silent focus and one of the best parts of this job.

Volunteerism and AIC Angels

18 01 2008

My mother was the queen of volunteers when I was growing up, and only lately have I started to realize some of the odd connections between what she spent her time on, and what I do now. For example, she and her women’s group helped re-establish the prison library at Attica after the riot there in 1971. I’m not sure of the details, but it was a library thing, for sure. Another example: this week marks the 20th anniversary of an award established in her honor at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College. My mother volunteered many hours in Rockwell Hall, working with the Center’s first Director, and my friend, the late Edna Lindeman. The Millicent Heller Volunteer Appreciation award is given each year to honor volunteer service. My mother’s volunteerism at the Albright Knox provided me, as a grade schooler, the opportunity to roam the galleries in off hours. I spent a lot of time crawling around in the mirrored room. She gave me an attachment to art, in many ways. I’m thrilled when I get to work on art made by artists I loved as a child. When a Burchfield watercolor came through the lab last year, I was pretty happy.

My mom also gave me an appreciation for how much work gets done by unpaid but dedicated people. This year’s American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Angel’s project is a case in point. I’m the coordinator for this year’s project, which will be hosted by the American Alpine Club and the Colorado Mountain Club. These organizations collaborated to maintain a world-class library and an newly opened museum which focus on the study of mountain environments and activities. These folks get so much done not only because of their energetic staff, but because of their enthusiastic volunteers. They are very excited at the prospect of a cluster of conservators descending upon them to do that thing that we do. Plans are in their early stages, but I know there are a century’s worth of summitting records, some written on candy wrappers, some on more official ledgers; there are canvas tents and leather-handled tools; there are lantern slides and color slides; there are giant models of Everest. There’s a mural. Rare books. Scrapbooks. Some of these things will get our attention and some will not (yet)- not sure which projects can be addressed in a day, even if we are superheroes. If you are a conservator, attending the AIC annual conference in Denver, give me a shout to sign up! There will be an announcement on the DistList soon.

We will also be seeking donations of supplies, so if you think you can help in that arena, gratitude will be yours in abundance!

Stay tuned for more details, and don’t forget to thank your volunteers!

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