To view the condition report, please scroll through the slideshow above using the right and left arrows.
For the past several years, I have been working closely with Emilian Maria Ignacio Silang, Chief Archivist for the Archive of Constraint as part of a larger research effort to better understand the contours of US imperialism in the Philippines. Following a series of visits to other institutional archives like the Field Museum of Natural History, Library of Congress, Newberry Library, and the Worcester archive at the University of Michigan Special Collections, I have been drawn to the ways archives articulate history through the holdings in their collections. Inevitably these collections elicit more questions than answers, and yet, they frequently underscore the social and political entanglements Institutions and their collectors maintain.
Recently, I have been reminded of artist Fred Wilson who developed critical interventions into museological spaces where his projects magnified the implicit power dynamics inherent within institutional collections. For Wilson, no museum can be neutral, particularly ones whose collections have been built from stolen objects, colonial possessions, or through other extractive measures. Embedded within that work is the acknowledgement that collections (and the institutions that sustain them) are fragmentary, that the notion of a complete history is a myth, and that analysis and context are everything. Often understood as mere provocations, these projects highlight the urgency of justice-based movement building and the need to cultivate coalitional strategies towards equity. Histories do not exist in vacuums, and institutions must remain in conversation with communities they serve and represent in order to adequately shape how histories are presented.
Complicating the conditions of collections, I have recently turned towards the labor of their maintenance and infrastructures of preservation. Often tucked away in space-efficient repositories, these holdings are stored in specially designed facilities that minimize external threats and potential harm to items in a collection’s possession. Everything from the material composition of storage boxes to the technology that tracks humidity within a facility is meticulously monitored. International standards for material preservation outline the methods archivists utilize in their daily operations to ensure the longevity of their holdings. In most cases, objects held in institutional repositories are meant to outlive the humans that maintain them and preservation thus becomes a method towards the development of historical legacies. As we have come to understand, we cannot tell accurate depictions of history if there are no historical records to prove it.
This is, of course, yet another articulation of power: items that have been designated as significant to the historical record are kept while others no longer deemed necessary are not. In the real estate of history, where archives must grapple with the economics of physical space and capacity, some items must be deaccessioned (i.e., withdrawn) from collections to either make way for different kinds of material or to relieve them from items that may be difficult to manage and sustain.
With these shifts in institutional collections (either due to fluctuations of institutional priorities or the challenges they face surrounding preservation sustainability), it becomes increasingly difficult to account for the intricacies of historical moments, further underlining the fragmentary nature of collections and institutions. And yet, every warehouse has its custodians that have an intimate understanding of the facilities and its secrets. Apart from the daily labor of regular cleaning and organizing, archivists maintain a wealth of knowledge about their holdings. As trained historians and caretakers of their objects, archivists can often fill the gaps of knowledge that collections and their holdings are not able to address. Within their own bodies, archivists carry the stories of history’s stuff, the oddities of possession, and the rumors of acquisition.
Archivists who perform this labor are often under acknowledged in the spectacles of exhibitions and publications despite the critical role they play in the safekeeping of historical ephemera. Several years ago, a collections manager replied to my email request to include an artwork for a project I was curating. Within days, she wrote back, “Due to conservation issues [the work requested] needs a rest after such a long exhibition period.” Prior to that email, I had not considered the idea that objects needed “a rest” or that items in collections could potentially have their own individualized healthcare regimes. In the efforts towards long term sustainability, caretakers of these objects must deploy strategies that allow their holdings to outlive them. By strategically using these periods of rest, collections managers uphold some of the more significant components in the preservation – and recovery – of historical ephemera to remain intact.
In order to track the material stability of items held in collections, archivists produce documents called “condition reports” that highlight any damage an item may have incurred. Typically, these reports are produced prior to accession (an item’s entry into a collection) or in preparation for an object’s transport for an exhibition or transfer. This document therefore provides archivists with a detailed account of an item’s physical condition and indicates whether or not objects should be treated for restoration or are safe to re-enter the collection. Ultimately, condition reports function as health checks that keep a watchful eye on items and help in strategizing the long term care needs of an object.
In my research at the Archive of Constraint, I have been fortunate to have been given access to the intricacies of this labor through a set of condition reports issued by the Archive to members of their advisory board. Developed quarterly as part of an accountability and transparency mechanism for advisors, the reports issued by Emilian contextualize the state of objects as they enter into the collection. I have included one of many letters written to Dr. Alfredo Raquedan below to offer some further context around these acquisitions as well as Emilian’s assessment of these holdings. Additionally, I share excerpts from the reports to illuminate how collections themselves, even if haunted by colonial frameworks of possession can be seen as forms of reconciliation.
Lingering beneath the present conditions of objects are the histories of utility imprinted on the objects themselves. Abrasions and cracks on the surfaces of photographs can often be attributed to their age while signaling how they were stored or handled. Frayed and damaged edges illuminate the choreographies of holding that index other bodies who may have handled or transported these objects. Some objects are visibly marked with oil stains from the fingers of a previous owner and others contain handwritten captions that provide date or location information of the item. In all of these cases, I am drawn to how these relics remain in conversation with the content of the object. Are there correlations between an item’s condition and the scene that it captures? Related to the condition report, I wonder, what part of history is actually being recorded?
In framing the condition report as a kind of self- and community-focused preservation strategy, I am reminded of Audre Lorde who writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I cannot help but think that the reports issued by Emilian function as a kind of political warfare in their own right – as gestures that serve to prevent multiple forms of historical amnesia and erasure that surround narratives of US imperialism in the Philippines and elsewhere.
Dear Dr. Raquedan,
Thank you for your ongoing support and guidance. Per the last advisory meeting, I’ve attached the set of condition reports following our most recent set of acquisitions. As you know, we are continuing to document the sources of these materials and have begun to include digital assets to the accession records that include screen grabs of the original listings from online marketplaces and as well as all other pertinent data. Objects acquired in this quarter were exclusively retrieved from Internet auction sites and we are working on removing any and all remaining digital traces of the items online, though as you are well aware, the Internet is a space of many ghosts. While not impossible, the removal of content from image searches is arduous and tedious labor and we continue to work with our community to develop protocols for ethical engagements with that content. Following from our recent conversations surrounding provenance concerns, these data will be made accessible soon and will be an important aspect of the collection’s accountability plan. That said, considering the backlog of items we have yet to accession, this may take some time.
You’ll also note that across these recent acquisitions, many of the items are technically in stable condition, yet it seems they are not suitable for public display at this moment. As indicated in many of the records, most of the objects have sustained damage due to mishandling and possession. Many items have simply been in the wrong hands as indicated by the common appearance of tears and frilled edges as well as many images that have sustained fractures across the surface. One item in particular is in such disrepair that the crack in the surface emulsion layer of the photograph has penetrated through the support (what we call the paper underneath the developed photo layer) and cannot be repaired even by the finest of conservators. Given its delicate state, it will never be suitable for public display.
With these challenges, we are continuously strategizing how to best tend to multiple forms of damage that these items have endured. We are working diligently with other professionals to ensure the longevity of the collection and the health of each item. I know how much you care about these objects as you consider their condition to reflect the state of our community. I’ll continuously seek your guidance as a health professional on how we might begin to share these remnants of our past with others who have yet to learn about them. We are committed to your ideal that to know history is to know ourselves and that the tasks of maintaining our stories help us to build strategies of survival.
May we continue to sustain ourselves,
Emilian Maria Ignacio Silang
Archive of Constraint