Thursday, March 17, 2011

Our visit to the ICU for sick paper

One of the perks of my job, apart from working daily in the NEMA salt mines alongside BJ, Heather, and Leslie, is the privilege of getting out occasionally to visit interesting museums and places associated with museums. Such a visit occurred yesterday, when Bill Veillette, director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center, hosted BJ and me in high style with a tour of his remarkable facility.

For those of you unfamiliar with NEDCC, I can sum up their primary mission in one breath: they are the Mayo Clinic for injured paper. A rare book with a broken binding, an antique map resembling Swiss cheese, historic documents suffering from rodent nibbles or water damage – all find their way to the doctors of NEDCC for rehabilitation.

On our tour, Bill explained how his hospital of 20,000 square feet is broken down into various wards: an area for works on paper, a much smaller area for book repair (since books require less space than the sometimes Brobdingnagian maps they conserve), a digitization studio, and, of course, offices.

As we toured these areas, we encountered workers at their craft. One gentleman intently scraped layers from a sheet of wizened black paper with what appeared to be a large scalpel. A woman stitched a piece of tawny leather by way of preparing a timeworn book for a new cover. They did not look up when we passed, but neither, we imagine, would a surgeon.

I was struck by the tools of their trade, how old-world they appeared. Industrial-age presses made of painted iron clamped between their jaws sheets of precious paper. The bookbinder’s vice would have been at home in the shop of an artisan of the Middle Ages. Everywhere were scattered assorted brushes, needles, weights, magnifiers, calipers, grippers, and plenty more gizmos of which I had no clue.

But beside these relics were some astonishingly clever tools that are at the forefront of the conservation practice. Bill showed us a vacuum table that can literally pull stains off the face of a historic manuscript. An apparatus resembling a tanning bed will bleach the mold off a drawing in a fraction of the time it would take to do the same job with natural sunlight. And NEDCC’s digitization studio features technology that would make Steve Jobs blush, including gazillion-megapixel cameras and a photo platform that allows absolutely precise reproduction of oversize works such as architectural drawings and maps. All cool stuff.

The juxtaposition of old tools and new, low-tech and high, was fascinating. It goes without saying that our ability to care for historic property today is far better than 50 years ago, simply because of advances in technology and method. But, as advanced as the procedures may be, there’s still a place for the simple hand tools of ancient artisans. I bet for many NEDCC employees, this is why it’s a great place to work.

As we said our thanks and goodbyes to Bill, it dawned on me that the juxtaposition of old and new is probably why, also, many museum professionals across the board like their work. Whether we’re involved with art, history, or otherwise, our principal occupation is often making a collection accessible to audiences with contemporary sensitivities. Sometimes this takes the razzle-dazzle of the latest technology. But, importantly, there is still a lot of room for old-fashioned scholarship and visitor service. The WOW! factor lies at the intersection.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Advocacy Scrapbook: Notes from DC

Kicking off the NEMA blog, I’m happy to present random impressions of my time last week in Washington, DC, where, along with 300+ colleagues from around the U.S., I roamed the halls of Congress for the third annual Museums Advocacy Day (actually three days of training, advocacy, and meetings).

Storm Clouds Gather: The political environment just prior to our visit couldn’t be more unsettled. General partisan rancor has devolved into a serious threat of a governmental shut-down by the end of the week. Not only are we lobbying for a place for museums within the Fiscal 2012 budget, it’s apparent that we will also be staving off cuts within the current year budget. There are moves afoot to eliminate NEA, NEH and perhaps even IMLS altogether. Exciting times. And scary.

The NEMA Crowd Gathers: It’s Sunday night and colleagues are popping up at the Georgetown University Inn & Conference Center, our HQ. Former NEMA board member Susan Funk from Mystic Seaport spots me in the bar (drinking a large glass of milk, of course) and introduces me to her boss, Stephen White. I also run into David Nathans from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum along with his board chair Sheldon Hackney. Sheldon, I note, might be the secret weapon for our lobbying efforts this week, as he is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His experience with Washington bureaucracy will certainly come in handy.

Advocacy Boot Camp: Bright and early Monday morning. Drill instructor Ford Bell commences advocacy boot camp with a rousing welcome and a description of our day. Training, training, and more training, all to prepare us for our ensuing assault on Capitol Hill tomorrow. We spend an exhausting day learning about the issues, gaining tips on lobbying etiquette, even role playing our prospective visits with the power brokers. Information overload hits at mid-afternoon. Just in time, we break for trail mix and coffee. The AAM staff reassures us that we’re ready. I’m not so sure.

A Breath of Fresh Air: We celebrate our new advocacy skills with a fine reception at the National Botanical Garden. It’s like walking into an oxygen bar, the air so light and fragrant I feel giddy. I note the ironic counterpoint to all the hot air we will be expelling tomorrow. AAM staffers are attentive hosts, introducing everyone to everyone else, while Ford is busy presenting awards to our friends in Congress. David Ellis informs me of his recent appointment as interim director at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and regales me with anecdotes.

Breakfast of Champions: Our day on the Hill starts with a Congressional Breakfast honoring the legislative champions of the museum field. We’re in the august Dirksen Senate Office Building, and first up to speak is Congressman Paul Tonko of New York, an ardent museum supporter who has agreed to spearhead the drive for sustainable IMLS funding for 2012. Congressman Bob Filner of California is next, decrying the attempts of some of his colleagues to eliminate funding for arts and culture. He says they’re destroying American civilization as we know it. Although it’s a bit melodramatic, we all know that, in a big way, he’s right. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio echoes those sentiments by saying we’re locked in a battle between Athens and Sparta. Most of us nod, identifying with the Athenians.

Travels with Carl: We’re turned loose and I head toward the House with Carl Nold, President and CEO of Historic New England. Carl is an experienced hand in DC, escorting me through the maze of walkways, passageways, and folkways that comprise the Capitol complex. Our itinerary includes visits to the offices of Massachusetts M.C.s Ed Markey, John Tierney, and Niki Tsongas, where our ranks are buttressed with the presence of NEMA board member Neil Gordon, CEO of the Discovery Museums. Approaching Markey’s office, we spot the Congressman hurrying toward us with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at his side. I wasn’t expecting such a grand reception! But, alas, they march right past, bound for the House chamber. Oh well. Another time, perhaps.

A Rockwell Moment: In the afternoon, the entire NEMA delegation from Massachusetts descends on the Senate. Fourteen of us stream into the ornate conference room of Senator John Forbes Kerry and crowd around the long mahogany table. By now, we know that we won’t be speaking with JFK himself, but his staffers are affable and sympathetic surrogates. Our appointed spokesperson, Laurie Norton Moffatt of the Norman Rockwell Museum, presents our case with tremendous poise and clarity. As she speaks, I realize the scene reminds me that famous Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving dinner, our museum family gathered around the table for some federal sustenance that John Kerry will hopefully serve up.

Going to the Dogs: The real wild card of the day will be Senator Scott Brown, our final appointment, not because he might be a tough sell for our message, but because he is actually scheduled to meet us in the flesh. Awaiting the moment, several of us hang out somnolently in the marbled lobby near his office, killing time with tall tales and idle talk. Suddenly, the air is filled with celebrity and we snap to attention. It’s a shirtsleeved Scott Brown, passing by with his too-cute dogs Snuggles and Koda. He stops for some handshakes and bon mots (the dogs eye us warily), then disappears whence he came. That’s the extent of our face time with the senator. But, hey, it’s the quality, not quantity, of time that counts in the advocacy game.

It’s a Wrap: It’s been an exhausting day and we head to an apr├Ęs-advocacy party at a restaurant downwind of the Capitol for an informal debriefing. Most folks I speak with are upbeat, feeling that they have accomplished something. I agree. In the big scheme of Washington politics, the museum community is a mere blip. Our contingent of 300+ is swamped by the armies of interest groups that have also descended on Capitol Hill today (most of whom wear interesting buttons, funny hats, and/or bright T-shirts to advertise their cause). Our request for $35 million in funding for the Office of Museum Services is small potatoes (one of our congressional champions called it “budget dust”). But I can’t help but feeling that someday museums will have a much higher profile – in DC and elsewhere. We have to keep at it. We need to enlist more colleagues. Maybe we need some funny hats. I’ll definitely be here again next year. I hope you’ll be there too.