Dying Technologies: the Project’s Point of Departure

There are moments in the history of conservation when objects are radically altered in order to preserve what was most valued at the time. For example, painted surfaces from panel paintings have in the past been stripped from their wooden support and re-adhered to canvas. The arguments justifying these decisions undoubtedly appeared compelling at the time, only to become highly controversial centuries later.

Within time-based media conservation, we are faced with a radical shift in technology as commercial support for 35 mm slides ceases. The project explores how, as conservators, we might respond to, and plan for, this significant change in the technology underpinning slide-based artworks in our collections. Unlike the decisions made to remove painted surfaces from panel paintings, the decision to change the underlying technological support of 35 mm slide-based artworks is not motivated by the desire to prevent damage but rather has become the only way in which we can continue to display these works. Of course, it is hard not to wonder if the decisions we make now about this body of works will in hindsight seem as contentious and misguided as those who feel passionately about the decisions made in the past about the treatment of panel paintings. However at this time, as we live on the cusp of this shift to the digital, we are fortunate in being able to work with the artists involved, to explore ways of managing these changes in order to attempt to secure the continued display of these works whilst we understand both analogue and digital technologies. In this emerging territory the conservator’s role is to function as a diplomat; mediating between the museum, the artwork, the artist and a distributed network of experts. The most important aspect of this role is to help build understanding and trust.

This project follows the journey within time-based media conservation at Tate from 2007 to the present day. Recognising the slow demise of slide technology, during this period we have: