The second phase of “Cultures of Conservation” (2017-2022) is generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and will continue its mission to model the best ways of integrating the approaches and insights of objects conservation and materials science with those of academics in the human sciences (anthropology, archaeology, art history, history).

The twenty-first century will see self-driving cars, smart textiles, self-regulating buildings, and artworks that change themselves. Some of this is already upon us. In the summer of 2017, for instance, the New York Times reported on scientists implanting a digital video into a bacterium’s DNA and turning a living creature, and then its numerous descendants, into a storage device. Of course, variants of this process have been with us for a long time. The human body itself could be said to pose the most acute example of “active matter”—and philosophers from diverse cultures have debated this point for millennia.

A nineteenth-century science with pre-modern antecedents, conservation has long been connected to the stabilization of art and architectural objects. Some aspects of this commitment grew out of the historicizing desire to encounter the past as it was. Others related to preserving the economic value of masterworks whose market life was as important to the present and the future. Conservators have long known that matter moved, that colors changed, that solids melted into air. But now that it is precisely these features which are being adapted for aesthetic, technical, and structural purposes, will conservation as a theory and as a practice have to change? And if so, how?

The principal components of this next phase of the Cultures of Conservation initiative focus around “active matter.” Bard Graduate Center, together with the Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques of the Humboldt University in Berlin (Cluster Bild. Wissen. Gestaltung) and the Conservation Department of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, will examine the specific implications of active matter for the theory and practice of conservation. The second component is the appointment of Dr. Jennifer L. Mass as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor who will teach Conservation for Non-Scientist courses to Bard Graduate Center students.

“Conserving Active Matter” aims to reshape conservation thinking and training by creating new expectations for the intellectual contributions of conservators and the kinds of discussions in which their presence will be required. In a world of active matter—the way in which materials are intrinsically active and therefore constantly change—the conservator’s scientific training is essential as is a philosophical understanding of the long history of the issues given new form by the challenges of modern materials. “Conserving Active Matter” will focus on the consequences of taking into account the highly mutable, dynamic, and active character of objects and images, which pose challenges not only for exhibiting but also for conservation, and even, for the museum itself. The three geographically dispersed teams, and an early career postdoctoral fellow, will work in parallel through videoconferenced seminars and bi-annual workshops at which representatives of the groups, along with invited visitors, will present current research.

Over the next five years, “Conserving Active Matter” will explore the meaning of active matter for the field of conservation through the lenses of material science, history, philosophy, and Indigenous ontologies that never made the assumption that matter was inactive. The November 27-28, 2017 symposium lays out the landscape of questions that will be the focus of subsequent seminars, conferences, courses, and fellowships, leading up to an exhibition in Spring 2022.