“Malleable Memories and an Evolving History: Preserving the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s Collection”
Speaker: Lisa Conte, Head of Conservation, 9/11 Memorial & Museum
Please note this is a virtual program; advance registration is required.
A distinguishing feature of many objects in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s collection is that they preserve truths about the lives of the people they intersected with. They also provide an entry point for understanding the grief, discontinuity, and eventual hope that ensued after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Objects vary widely in medium and inherent condition and include evidence of the atrocity, memorial and tribute items, artworks, and historical records, documenting a day that changed the world. Some represent the culmination of a rapid-response collecting initiative that began within days of the event. In New York City, this enterprise preserved examples of the community response and objects recovered from the Ground Zero disaster site. These efforts were made even though there was no way of knowing, at that point, exactly what role these artifacts would play in the remembrance of this history.
Preserving artifacts in the collection is complicated. Often there are no ideal aesthetics to strive for. To the contrary, physical wear, dust, and visible evidence of trauma can add, rather than detract, from an object’s historical and emotional resonance. Determining what aspects of an object are significant, and what, if anything, warrants intervention, requires careful study, as any alteration can directly shape a still evolving history. Engaging with stakeholders outside the museum realm who are fluent with the details of this fateful event and those it claimed or scarred is essential. But even then, the process is imperfect. Memories of traumatic events can be fallible. And our interpretation of things can change.
Highlighting illustrative examples, this talk will consider how the Museum’s preservation strategies attempt to maintain the authenticity and humanity of objects that illustrate a very complex history, from the lives of those killed to the way people came together in inspiring ways as they faced a collective traumatic experience. It will also consider how working with a collection born of an act of contemporary terrorism can affect us as museum professionals.
Lisa Conte is the Head of Conservation at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. She specializes in the conservation of modern and contemporary works on paper, and has previously held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Scott Gerson Conservation, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She received her BA in English and Studio Art from William Smith College and an MA in Art History and an Advanced Certificate in Conservation from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Her current research interests include the ethical considerations related to the preservation of spontaneous memorials.