From painted cave temples in China to pyramids in Egypt to earthen cathedrals in Peru, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) works globally to conserve artworks, architecture, and cultural heritage sites. An integral part of this effort is conducting scientific research, developing tools and educating and training professionals to manage conservation projects in situ. In this episode, John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the GCI Tim Whalen discusses past initiatives as well as what the future holds for the institution.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIM WHALEN: It takes a while to figure out dance steps. But once we do, we dance pretty well with colleagues in many, many parts of the world.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Tim Whalen, the John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
The Getty Conservation Institute, or GCI, as we call it, works internationally to advance conservation practice in the visual arts—broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites. The GCI serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, field projects, and the dissemination of information. In all its endeavors, the GCI creates and delivers knowledge that contributes to the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage.
I recently sat down with Tim Whalen, the John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the GCI, to discuss the Institute’s work and his plans for its further development.
So Tim, thank you for joining us this afternoon on the podcast.
WHALEN: Great, Jim. It’s good to be here.
CUNO: Now, you are director of the Getty Conservation Institute, or the GCI, as we call it. Tell us about the origins of the GCI, when and why it was founded when it was.
WHALEN: Well, kind of its earliest origins go back to a person named Otto Whitman. Otto was a Monuments Man during the Second World War, that group of individuals who helped protect and save art that had been looted and seized by a variety of groups, but mostly by the Nazis. But Otto was a trustee here at the Getty, and he also was an advisor to the trustees.
CUNO: When was that, 1970s?
WHALEN: That was the late seventies.
CUNO: Very early in the life of the Getty then.
WHALEN: Exactly. And Mr. Getty had died in 1976 and the estate was just being settled. And Otto, and also another trustee called Franklin Murphy, who was a kind of kingmaker here in Los Angeles, worked together and developed a kind of position paper. And in that position paper, they said there should be the great museum that there WHALEN (Cont.): is today, Mr. Getty’s legacy; that there should be a research library for art historians; and that there should be a research center for conservation. So that’s the first time the notion of what today is the GCI came about.
CUNO: Were there other conservation laboratories in Los Angeles, other than those associated with museums?
WHALEN: There weren’t. You know, LACMA had a, and continues to have, a very strong conservation lab and they had a very strong group of conservation scientists. Really, there’s only one other one in the United States, at the Smithsonian, that was focused on conservation and conservation science writ large.
CUNO: Did Otto and Franklin think that by establishing such a laboratory here in Los Angeles, that that would serve the West Coast of the United States or be independent of geography?
WHALEN: That’s a good question. The notion of the GCI evolves over the years. But initially, it was intended to be kind of more a West Coast organization. At the time in the United States—and they still exist in a variety of forms—there were these things called regional labs.
But as the trust came about and Harold Williams and Nancy Englander started doing their listening tours, if you will, the definition of what the GCI would become broadened, and there was increasing emphasis on the GCI being a center for scientific examination. And the broader approach to things really came about after Luis Monreal was hired as our founding director. And that was in 1985. And Luis came in and looked at this material and realized this was very important, it was good.
It was very museum-focused. It had appropriate interest in science. But what Luis did, as well as expanded it beyond just museum collections— And he convinced the trustees that we should invest and be involved in the protection and conservation of the built heritage, as well. So that’s really how the GCI developed into the kind of form it is today.
CUNO: Now, you insist on using the word conservation. We use it, of course, here, and within the profession, it’s used. But sometimes use the word preservation.
CUNO: So what’s the difference between preservation and conservation?
WHALEN: Sometimes people think of that as an Americanism. So in the United States, people say preservation and they think of historic preservation. So local agencies or the national organization that work to preserve historic places. And so in the United States, preservation is used mostly to describe the caring for place. And abroad, people might use preservation entirely differently. So here at home and in kind of the international standard, is the word conservation.
CUNO: It doesn’t have to do with the kind of intervention or work that one does on the object or the monument? So preservation does a certain sort of fixing up the thing, but conservation does a total analysis of it?
WHALEN: What you’re getting at, I think, is the conflict between the terms conservation and restoration. And so by and large, we at the GCI and at the Getty generally, and I think common modern practice today, scientific practice in institutions, one abides by the philosophy, a notion of conservation. So that is the stabilization of an object and the protection of that which exists, as opposed to the replacement of that which is now missing.
CUNO: So you mentioned built heritage. So what’s the difference between built heritage and cultural heritage?
WHALEN: Well, I think one way for us to understand it at the Getty is, we’re an organization that for many years, has been focused on works of art and architecture and archaeology. So we’re rooted in the physical aspects of culture and cultural heritage. Cultural heritage can mean so many different things. It could include literature and dance and intangible cultural heritage, as well.
But the way we tend to use it at the Getty, when we say cultural heritage here, it does tie it to the physical, material cultural heritage. Historic buildings, historic cities, archaeological sites, monuments, and important buildings.
CUNO: I wanna know a bit more about how the world deals with the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. What kind of national and international governmental and nongovernmental, private foundations like the Getty are there? How do you work with all this complicated [inaudible]?
WHALEN: Yeah, yeah.
CUNO: Because governments have a role to play, and sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not.
WHALEN: It’s a big, complex ecosystem. And like so many things, the United States approaches its cultural heritage and its care quite differently than many other countries. And so in this country, restoration, conservation, and responsibility for it is devolved[?] to states, to cities, and to private organizations such as the Getty.
As you’ll know, out of Washington, there isn’t national cultural heritage policy per se, even though there are laws that govern the restoration and protection of some buildings, particularly if they in some way are tax-benefitted. But museums, private institutions address conservation according to standards that spring from best professional practices as espoused by organizations like the American Institute for Conservation or the ICOM, which is the International Council of Museums Conservation Committee. So there are a whole series of approaches to doing that, but there isn’t a standard policy in this country.
But then in other places, there’s [a] much more centralized approach to things. For instance, if one looks at a country like France or a country like Japan, there’re much clearer rules and regulations that come out of the central government, about an approach to the care for cultural heritage writ large.
In addition to that, there are a series of what we could call intergovernmental organizations. You’ll think of UNESCO as one. UNESCO’s an important international player when it comes to the protection of— principally, of built heritage. And also they have an important initiative on the protection of the intangible cultural heritage. And so they, with their member states, develop policies and implement programs that execute those policies.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Now, capacity building is an important part of the work of the Getty. So it’s not only in training people and providing the instruction, but it’s also building networks and relationships among the conservators. So you work hard at that, and have since the founding of the Getty Conservation Institute. What is the state of affairs today, compared to what it was maybe thirty years ago?
WHALEN: One of the things I’ve always admired about this field, the field of conservation, is the truly collaborative nature of professionals in. Conservators want to help one another and work together. One of the things we try to do when we are building capacity, as we call it—and I kind of think of, let’s say, some work we’ve done in Eastern and Central Europe, with the photographic conservation—is we pull together teams from about fifteen countries in the region, to focus on building photographic conservation skills.
But one of the aspects of that work that was incredibly important to us was building communities of practice across borders. Not just passing on solid technical training and advice about intervention and the care of photographs, but building relationships between practitioners who might not have ever worked together— let’s say Poles with people from the Czech Republic, as an example—so that they could build networks there that benefitted that heritage in that region. But again, it’s about bringing professionals together around specific topics. And it’s about networking.
CUNO: Yeah. One of the things that I think is so impressive about the work you do is that you do it on the terms that are affordable for those who are doing the work that you’ve just described. In other words, you don’t go into a place and, you know, train them with materials or techniques they can’t duplicate themselves with readily-available materials where they work.
WHALEN: Mm-hm. What we try to do is meet people where they are. And we learn a lot from doing that. But I think a kiss of death for us could be creating a Getty solution and imposing a Getty solution. And that won’t be very helpful. So I think of work we’ve been doing for a while here, in Peru specifically, but intended to benefit a particular building type in Latin America. And that’s work we’re doing for earthen architecture, earthen buildings—so you could think of adobe as one way to describe it—in Latin America, an area that is very susceptible to earthquakes and seismic activity.
And so what we’ve been doing there is trying to identify approaches and methodologies and some technologies that can be applied in historic buildings in the region to protect them from earthquake. So what we did, working with the Ministry of Culture in Peru, was identify four building types, four typologies, and then created technical solutions that would exploit locally-available expertise and materials. And so that’s how we try to create solutions, so that they’re solutions that are resident in place. And then with our work and the work of our peers and colleagues there, we implement those techniques.
It’s all about seismic stabilization of these buildings. We’ve been from our founding, involved in conservation of earthen materials, whether it’s in the laboratory doing work that can benefit material conservation, or it’s dealing with engineer[ing] issues around the protection of earthen buildings in the seismic zones. And in fact, we did a lot of that work here in Los Angeles, where there’s a wealth of earthen buildings, and an equally large number of earthquakes. So that work comes out of projects we started here in L.A.
CUNO: Yeah. Let’s go back to the very beginning of GCI and the first GCI director, Luis Monreal. He’s associated with the first project you worked on in Western China, in Mogao or Dunhuang, on of the earliest sites on which you’ve worked. Tell us about how you got to that, just how the GCI got to that project and what they’ve done in that project over the course of now some thirty years.
WHALEN: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s interesting. And what I always like to say about our work is that we stick with it until we answer the questions that have been posed. And we can’t do that work without good partners. And we began working in China about thirty years ago. And we were the first cultural, private cultural organization that went into China to work there on cultural heritage. And Luis, with a colleague, a former colleague of his from UNESCO, identified a number of sites in China where our expertise might be valuable.
We worked at a couple, but really found traction at the site of the Mogao Grottos in Western China. And what you also have to realize is it was more or less at that time that the Chinese authorities had become signators to the World Heritage Convention, and there were a number of principal sites in China that had been inscribed on the World Heritage List in the initial group that China presented, the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and the Mogao Grottoes among them. And so I think Luis realized the extraordinary value of the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang.
CUNO: Yeah, what were the issues there that attracted Luis’ attention to it and has kept you there for these thirty years?
WHALEN: Yeah. Well, the place is extraordinary. And if anyone who’s listening to this has a chance to be in China, I encourage you to please take the three days necessary to get to the west to see the site, because it’s a mind-boggling place. It’s the probably single largest repository of Buddhist pictorial art.
CUNO: Painted walls.
WHALEN: Painted— and the painted grottoes. It was active from about 400 to 1400, so there’re multiple styles. And there’re more than 500 painted grotto caves there. So it’s a site of extraordinary richness and wealth.
CUNO: And these caves are sites of veneration. And along a route that took one west or east, in the farthest west of China.
WHALEN: Exactly. Dunhuang, the city, was a principal oasis stop and supply city on the Silk Road. Somehow we kind of romanticize the Silk Road, that just there were kind of lone groups of camels and travels. But this was an active freeway back and forth, if you will, of people and ideas and materials moving back and forth, east to west.
And Mogao, the site of Mogao where the grotto temples are, was right near an oasis. And people came and families commissioned these grotto caves. And it’s also probably the most important medieval place in all of China, as well.
CUNO: Where this water on this oasis, part of Dunhuang— where the waters streamed through, it carved out faces from the earth in those walls.
CUNO: They carved out in the temples themselves, or the grottoes themselves.
WHALEN: Exactly. There’s an escarpment. It’s solid enough that all these grotto caves were carved into this face of the escarpment. And they were plastered and then painted.
Some of them are kind of monumental scale; others are much smaller. But the wall paintings are mesmerizing. And the materials that were in them were important. And those materials, I’m afraid, have found themselves in many, many Western collections and were removed from the site. But the site remains fully intact because, in my mind, the most important aspect of it are these grotto temples that—
CUNO: Yeah. And what are the issues there, the conservation issues for you?
WHALEN: Well, there’re many. And we’ve worked with them as they’ve presented themselves to us over the years. When my colleague Neville Agnew, who led our work at the site there, first arrived, the obvious first problem was blowing sand.
Behind this escarpment, there’re vast sand dunes. When the sand blew, it went over the front of the precipice where the grottoes are. So it made them inaccessible and it made conservation extremely difficult, and it made visitation difficult. So that was one of the first issues that the Conservation Institute, working with the Dunhuang Academy, attempted to solve.
And that was done using a variety of barriers up above, but also planting a series of grasses that we determined could grow reasonably sustainably above the hillside, to stop the sand blowing. So that was very early on. We didn’t even begin to carefully examine wall paintings yet in situ, before those kinds of issues were first developed.
CUNO: Mm-hm. And from the work that you did on the site, as you’ve described it, it became so important and impressive that the Chinese government officially designated the work you did and the principles you used to do that work as the China Principles…
CUNO: …that could be applicable to similar such caves all throughout China.
WHALEN: Yeah. So we did this work on the sand dunes and helped sort out solution to that. And then for many years, we worked in a single cave called Cave 85, which is an extraordinarily beautiful cave. But there, we were really advancing best practice in the realm of wall painting conservation. And so that was probably the second major undertaking at the site.
Then because there is really extraordinary leadership at the site, the director Mrs. Fan, she recognized that the practice of conservation in China could be improved in a number of different ways. But one of them was to create a series of national guidelines, if you will, so that the practice of caring for places physically, but also for the management and the management of tourism, could be dealt with according to a series of principles.
And so the national government, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, with the Dunhuang Academy, invited the Conservation Institute, we here at the Getty, and our colleagues in Australia, to develop a series of principles to do that. And they were adopted by the Chinese International Council of Monuments and Sites. And indeed, they’ve been revised and a second edition, that focuses on some other kinds of heritage as well, have now been published, and they’re being utilized across China.
CUNO: With the economic development of China and the increasing tourism in China, and the appeal of Dunhuang and the work that you’ve done there, what is the state of Dunhuang today and what are the threats to Dunhuang that you’re concerned about?
WHALEN: Yeah. Well, I have to say, one of the things that’s impressed me the most over the years working in China is how strategic our colleagues there in the cultural heritage sector have been about identifying big-picture needs and then prioritizing those and addressing them.
What was interesting about Mogao—and I remember my first trip there, which is probably about twenty years ago, and Neville, on our staff, told me this— you know, there’s a daily flight from Beijing often. And it was often cancelled. It was a place off the beaten track, and difficult to get to.
I remember going, arriving at a pretty basic airport. And that was when I was first exposed to the magic of the site. Today when one arrives at the Dunhuang Airport, one can easily find three 737s on the ground, and everyone getting off those aircraft are going to do the one principal thing there is to do at Dunhuang, and that is to go to the Mogao Grottoes. So there is a huge influx in tourism in China, and happily, mostly people from China going to visit the site. The colleagues at the Academy have been very strategic and very systematic about how the site is presented, how many visitors can come onto the site.
They’ve created a state-of-the-art visitors center, where people take some time to orient themselves to the history of the site and its importance. And then they go on a bus, about three kilometers away, to get into the site, and then are taken on tours. And so it’s a much more controlled environment, tourist environment, than it was two decades ago, when I first got involved there.
CUNO: Well, that’s an important first step for the GCI in the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. One of the next steps was King Tut’s tomb. Tell us about that, what the issues were there, and how that related to the work you’re doing in Dunhuang.
WHALEN: Sure, sure. Well, Egypt was another place that our founding director, Luis Monreal, brought us to. And the first place we worked at was the tomb of Nefertari, which is in the Valley of the Queens. And so that project and the place is extraordinary, extraordinarily beautiful. And I think through that work and some other work we did on site management planning in the Valley of the Queens, we gained the trust of the authorities in Egypt.
CUNO: You should describe this to us because the Valley of the Kings and the Queens are the burial sites of the kings and queens of ancient Egypt.
WHALEN: So this is on the west bank of the Nile, across from the modern city of Luxor, in what you’d call the Theban Necropolis. And the two most famous sites are the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings, each of which have multiple tombs carved into the stone.
They’re all subterranean and covered with the most remarkable wall paintings. They’re all extremely famous for a variety of reasons, but the smallest of the tombs is probably the most famous of them. And that is King Tut’s tomb. And it’s most famous because of the extraordinary cache of materials that was discovered and taken from it by Howard Carter in 1919.
And the world is still mesmerized by those works of art that are now finding their way slowly to the new Grand Egyptian Museum. But Tut’s tomb, where we’ve now been working and just finished the project at the end of last year, there was concern that its state of preservation was deteriorating rapidly.
CUNO: Because of tourism?
WHALEN: Tourism and just it was thought that there, the wall paintings were deteriorating, for reasons that hadn’t really yet been documented.
CUNO: How did the Egyptian authorities come to you? Or did you go to them and then had a conversation and then it resulted in your work?
WHALEN: Because of that work we’d done in earlier days at the tomb of Nefertari and the work we’d done on the management plan for the Valley of the Queens—which regrettably, has not yet been implemented—I think we really had the confidence of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities there. And in particular, the person who ran it, the famous archaeologist, Zahi Hawass. And it was Zahi who invited us to come and see if there was something we might be able to do in Tut’s tomb.
And so after a initial visit, we accepted the invitation to carry out that work. Tut’s tomb is probably the best-studied tomb, from a material and scientific perspective, of the tombs in the King’s Valley, at least. And one of the concerns was that—if anyone’s seen an image of the wall paintings there—there are these brown splotches, that are very disfiguring on the painted surface.
And it wasn’t clear whether they were growing or whether they were stable. And that was one of the assignments we had from the Egyptians, to determine—
CUNO: They were organic materials. That’s how they could grow, huh?
CUNO: Or that was the fear.
WHALEN: That’s what we speculated initially. So through a series of very, very rigorous physical examinations and the engagement of some renowned biologists, we continued the study there. And it was determined, through the work of the biologists, but also through basic examination, that the spots, these splotches weren’t growing. And in fact, we were able to take historic photographs from the original discovery of the tomb, when Carter was there, and compare them with current images. And we realized that the splotches hadn’t grown. But what we didn’t know is whether they were still, quote, “alive.” And we determined, as well, that they weren’t living.
CUNO: Tell us why you just don’t paint over them.
WHALEN: Well, you don’t paint over them because that would be restoration, in the simplest answer. But it’s not clear to us how long those splotches have been there. And those splotches might have been there for a thousand years, so they’re a part of the— of the site, and they’re a part of the paintings now. And I think to paint over them, I think it would be as jarring as the spots are now. At least we can explain what they are and why they’re there.
CUNO: I ask that question partly as a joke, of course. But as you began to answer it, it is the question that you have to determine the various historical interventions over the course of time or the changes that have occurred over the course of time. And it’s very difficult to decide when to remove one or change one because it’s been historical.
CUNO: So once you figured that out, what next did you do?
WHALEN: So there was a thorough cleaning of the surfaces. It involved, frankly, just a lot of dust removal. And then there was modest consolidation of some of the surfaces that were lifting up. But by and large, what we learned was that the pictures were in good shape and that there wasn’t a lot of active degradation.
The other thing we wanted to do there was make the viewing of the space as pleasant for the public as possible. When lots and lots of people come into these confined spaces, they bring with them their dust and their breath. And their breath is what sometimes causes problems for these painted surfaces, particularly in these places that are as dry as Egypt.
So one of the things we did was replace a ventilation system there that created a bit of a positive pressure in the space to keep dust out, but also to remove humidity that visitors brought in. And simultaneously, we also created a new lighting system. And the wall paintings, I think, have never looked better, because of the uniformity of the light that’s being cast on them now.
CUNO: I think probably our listeners would be surprised to know that much of the work that you do is architectural intervention that’s removable; that you don’t do anything that is permanent.
WHALEN: Oh, gosh, yeah. Yeah. So we in fact, in that space, built a new viewing platform that extends out into the burial chamber a little bit, so that the visitors could see the paintings without having to kind of grab the wall and pull themselves around to look.
And so the platform that we built also accommodates the air conditioning under it. And all of that can be removed. We— you know, we’re not digging holes into the existing physical fabric. It all is placed inside the tomb with a light touch and without intervening in original material.
CUNO: Yeah. So the three projects we’ve talked about—Peru, China, and Egypt—have all involved delicate negotiations with governments to get the kind of permission to do the work that you needed to do and that you convinced them needs to be done. And it’s also working closely with government officials, conservators, and sometimes archaeologists. How difficult is it to build the kind of partnerships you need to build to do the work you need to do?
WHALEN: Well, it’s difficult. Like all things, it’s a trusting relationship. And we wouldn’t have been invited to do the work at Tut, if we hadn’t, I think, demonstrated the carefulness and our ability to work in partnership with the Egyptians that we did. It just wouldn’t have happened. And I think wherever we’ve been successful, it’s because of the partnerships we’ve formed.
I think people recognize that we have a particular kind of expertise, and expertise related to scientifically-based conservation. We hope to solve a problem, and we hope the problem we want to solve is one that our local partners believe is worth solving.
It takes a while to figure out dance steps. But once we do, we dance pretty well with colleagues in many, many parts of the world.
But again, it takes time. And what happens in many places is governments change, ministers change, their staffs change. And when that happens, then we have to kind of start from scratch again. So sometimes working with university partners, as we have in Peru, as an example, builds a greater stability into the relationship because professors tend to keep their jobs longer than ministers do.
CUNO: I wanna switch gears now and look at some projects that are not at all about the conservation of particular sites and the material development of those sites, but rather have to do with the way you image sites and manage the access to those images. So it’s something that you’ve developed a software program or platform you’ve developed called Arches inventory and management; and then another one following that called DISCO. Tell us about those two and why they are relevant to the work you do in conservation.
WHALEN: Well, like all of these projects that we’ve done in built heritage sites, we hope that the work we do there is applicable in many other instances. And that kind of sharing of knowledge, sharing of expertise, extends to our work, whether we’re working in the development of software, if you will, or we’re doing work in our laboratories. And so you mention our Arches project, Jim, and then also our DISCO project. And I never thought, as the director of a conservation institute, I’d be talking about the development of software. It just was the last thing in my mind.
But Arches has an interesting history. And in the early part of this century, during the Iraq War, there was a lot of interest in helping our professional colleagues in the cultural sector in Iraq. The museum in Baghdad had been sacked. Professionals just didn’t have the resources they required.
And everyone was rushing into the museum to help a terrible circumstance there. But we thought maybe we should and help our archaeological colleagues in Iraq and bring some resources to them. And so we set off and met with our Iraqi colleagues a number of times in Jordan. And what we realized and what they seemed to indicate is that they needed an inventory system to help catalog all the many, many sites that are in Iraq.
CUNO: Because there hadn’t been such a catalog before.
WHALEN: There had been a catalog, but it was paper-based. And in the meantime, there had been great advances in technology, and our Iraqi colleagues knew of a system that the Jordanians had. And so the Jordanians became our partners, with the Iraqis, to develop a new system. And we did that. And so it was the first time there was a kind of web-based inventory system for cultural heritage places.
CUNO: What’s the advantage of that? Is that that you can retrieve it?
WHALEN: You just realize how much things have changed. Think of like a card catalog. The card catalog exists in one place. And the inventory of sites in many archaeologically-rich countries existed in a card catalog at headquarters in Baghdad or in Amman. And the sites didn’t have the same information and the sites couldn’t feed information. And so we created at the time something called the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, which was the basis on which Arches was founded.
And if you had a web-based system, that entire inventory could be available to archaeologists and site managers throughout the country. And when they had new information to add, they could add it at the place it was created, and it would reside at the site, because the archaeologists had access to the web, and it would reside at headquarters, as well.
WHALEN: And so everyone was sharing the same information and the same database.
CUNO: And this is written info, as well as visual information.
CUNO: This is capturing images of the sites.
WHALEN: Exactly. It’s principally word-based at that point. But the system was also geospatially enabled, so the sites could be identified with GIS. And that was something that they hadn’t had. And also, what we were able to demonstrate with the creation of MEGA, which is the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, is how such a system could be used for planning.
So if a new pipeline had to go in or a new road had to go in, one could look at these GIS maps and adjust development around where sites were, around areas that were particularly archaeologically rich. And the system was adopted by the Iraqis, but the difficulties continued in the country and so it was less well used there. But it was also adopted by the Jordanians, and that MEGA system is still up and running in Jordan, and people like using it. But they’re looking forward to migrating it all into a new Arches system.
CUNO: And where else in the world are they using this thing?
WHALEN: So out of that work, we developed what became known as Arches, which is an opensource web-based GIS-enabled inventory and management system. So essentially, a system that was created for governments or projects or cities, into which they could place their heritage data information, their heritage data inventories. And it just allowed them to manage these places much more effectively.
And so that system is now, and has been, freely available on the internet, at a site called archesproject.org. It was a software that we developed with the assistance of the World Monuments Fund, and we were equal partners in its development. And that system has been implemented in a number of places. We demonstrated it here in Los Angeles, so the city of L.A.’s inventory is on there, in a system called Historic Places L.A. But we recently learned that the city of Philadelphia and the city of San Francisco have both adopted Arches as models.
One day we received this wonderful email out of the blue, from a group of colleagues working in the Philippines, who informed us that they had adopted Arches for a national inventory of places, wholly unbeknownst of us. Which was the best possible news we could imagine, because that meant people knew about it and could figure out how to take it on and adopt it for their own purposes. And for my mind, that’s when we at the GCI, you know, do our best work, is that we’re sharing information freely that people find of great utility and value.
WHALEN: So it’s thriving and alive and we are continuing to improve it.
CUNO: Now, you earlier said that you didn’t think that all those years you’d been working in conservation, that you would be talking about software. But now you can also say the same thing about talking about DISCO. So what is DISCO?
WHALEN: DISCO is an acronym, kind of anacronym, for Data Integration for Conservation Science. And it is a platform we are very much in the middle of developing, but there’re working prototypes. And what DISCO does is allow the information that conservation scientists extract from their work when they’re using any number of instruments—let’s say x-ray or GCMS—to take that data and put it into a system that can find it and search it and organize it.
So if you think about an organization like the Getty, we have many, many systems that track important data, whether it’s a system to track the museum’s collections or systems to track photographs or systems to track library books. And those systems are hugely helpful in organizing data and sharing data. But in the last thirty years, there’s been a huge investment, not just at the Getty but across the field, in conservation science and the investigation into works of art with science. And that data tends to end up in a file there aren’t tools to allow for its automated collection, its automated sharing, searching, and finding of it. And DISCO will allow all of that information that scientists collect to be conveniently and thoughtfully stored according to best kind of data standards.
CUNO: And with the idea, certainly, that gathering all this information, you need to make this information available in perpetuity.
WHALEN: Exactly. If you kind of think about DISCO, there’s another way to think about it. Well, so we’re implementing it here for our scientific teams at the GCI. And that will be our high-powered demonstration project, if you will.
And so we anticipate by the end of next year, next calendar year, that it will be up and running. But imagine the power of that. Let’s say our scientists here were working on a project that was focused on the paintings of Rembrandt, and doing scientific study of those paintings. If our colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, and our colleagues at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam also had an instance of DISCO going, they could input their information, their scientific findings about the pictures there, and all that data could be queried and shared across borders effortlessly, like so many other types of data are. We’ve just never created systems for scientific data to allow for that.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, what are the next big challenges for the GCI?
WHALEN: Well, I think one of our biggest challenges is always choosing what work we should pursue, because there’s so many challenges in the field of cultural heritage preservation. I think for the people who’ve listened to this podcast, you’ll see we focus a lot on the conservation of material things. And we focus a lot on capacity building.
And if I think about it, you know, there’s been so much terrible news around the world about the wanton destruction of cultural heritage, the vandalism and violence against sites and places, and there’s been a lot of hand wringing. But I want to remind people that unless there are highly skilled and highly trained people, people we would think of as conservators, at least for the purpose of this conversation, unless we’re investing in that profession of people who know how to care for things practically and have the advanced training to protect and preserve and care for the cultural heritage, it doesn’t matter.
We can have lots and lots of international meetings raising concerns about the plight of the heritage, but if there aren’t people who know how to address those concerns, whether it’s wall painting conservators, museum conservators, objects conservators, site managers and architects, it won’t matter. We have to invest in that training of people.
CUNO: Yeah, that’s a cautionary note on which to end. So thank you so much, Tim. It’s great, the work the GCI does, and that you lead the GCI means a great deal to us. So thank you very much.
WHALEN: Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIM WHALEN: It takes a while to figure out dance steps. But once we do, we dance pretty well with c...