Maastricht University
Harro van Lente (Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Maastricht University), Vivian van Saaze (Associate Professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University), Pip Laurenson (Head of Collection Care Research, Tate)
October 2018 –

Close-up of someone's hands holding electrical equipment

Maintenance on Tate’s 16mm projectors
Photo © Dirk van de Leemput

Since the 1990s museums have increasingly collected time-based media artworks. These artworks’ use of media technologies is one of their defining characteristics. Sooner or later these technologies become obsolete and their maintenance becomes an issue. This research studies how time-based media works of art and their constituent technologies are cared for. It uses methods from anthropology to study three cases: the care for 16mm film in the work of Tacita Dean, the care for cathode-ray (CRT) technology around the recent Nam June Paik retrospective at Tate (2019–20), and the care for software in Tate’s intermedia art commissions (2000–11).

The project builds on a combination of conservation studies, innovation studies, and science and technology studies and aims at three things. Firstly, it challenges the standard narrative about technological change by presenting a framework for analysis that values care above innovation. Secondly, it shows what happens to technologies at the end of their mainstream lifetime. How do the technologies and their related skills continue to exist in small niches? Thirdly, the project highlights the invisible work of those technicians that are invaluable for the conservation of time-based media art but are lacking in the great majority of studies on conservation. This is not only a political project of articulating marginalised voices, but also sheds light on how a museum could help to care for those who work to conserve and maintain works of art.

This research is part of Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum. The research project is co-funded by the Andrew W. Mellon fund and Maastricht University, the Netherlands.

About Dirk van de Leemput

Dirk van de Leemput has a research interest in the history and sociology of technology and issues of conservation. He holds an MA in Science and Technology Studies and in Archival Sciences. Earlier publication subjects include historical stained-glass making, archival and museum practices of conserving stained-glass cartoons and various publications on local history.