In conversation: Stefan Simon on IPCH’s ‘kaleidoscopic landscape of disciplines’

Yale is hosting the eighth Global Colloquium of University Presidents (UNGC) April 12-13. A series of related public events will take place April 6-15.
The Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage on Yale's West Campus is home to a unique collaboration of conservation science, curatorial knowledge, and a community of academic disciplines to preserve cultural heritage.
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Yale is hosting the eighth Global Colloquium of University Presidents (UNGC) April 12-13. A series of related public events will take place April 6-15.

In anticipation of these events, YaleNews reached out to Stefan Simon, the inaugural director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at Yale West Campus. Simon, a heritage scientist who is trained as a chemist, served as director of the Rathgen Research Laboratory at the National Museums in Berlin — the oldest museum laboratory in the world — and as a member and vice president on the council of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

See also: The U.N. Global Colloquim of University Presidents on cultural heritage.

Simon shared his thoughts on the mission for IPCH, what “fuels the institute,” and the role that the “selfie” generation may play in the future of conservation science.

The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What is the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage?

The mission for the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage is foremost to advance the field of heritage science through transdisciplinary research, education and practice. IPCH is developing sustainable solutions for better care, interpretation, and access to cultural heritage, from the tangible to the intangible and from the movable to the immovable in the broadest possible partnership. Yale is a great place for such an institute because it is a kaleidoscopic landscape of disciplines, where anthropologists, art historians, engineers, and linguists — to name a few — are working together in close proximity.

Nowadays preservation of cultural heritage is not just about fixing a problem — like gluing an arm back on a statue, or a leg to a table — it starts with exploring the context of an object, a collection, or a site. More and more, the field of heritage science is focusing on developing a forecast for the future. How will an object or a collection fare in the future? How will it survive throughout the next generations? This is a very interdisciplinary undertaking, and I think Yale is uniquely positioned to tackle these challenges. There is no place quite like the IPCH, and there is no better place for an institute for the preservation of cultural heritage than Yale.

Irma Passeri, senior conservator of paintings at the Yale University Art Gallery, is shown here working on “Virgin and Child with Saints Vincent Ferrer and Jerome,” (ca. 1510-1515) an altarpiece by Piero Di Cosimo that is part of the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

What exactly is cultural heritage?

When we think about what cultural heritage is, I always say that it is at the root of our identity in language, food traditions, and music, to name just a few. It is us, whether it is our family photos, or Van Gogh’s “Night Café,” or the site of Machu Pichu. It is a source of knowledge about societies and a source of reconciliation after conflict. It is and always will be at the center of how societies function and work.

What are the intangible aspects of cultural heritage that are being threatened?

A castle or a church has a lot of intangible values, because languages and traditions are linked to them. We have many endangered languages at the brink of being extinguished. Many of these traditions are vanishing due to modern development. I think any approach to preserving intangible cultural heritage has to take into account that this is an area that is subject to continuous change. You cannot freeze time. Societies’ identities develop and this dialogue is very important, and it is important to note that this broader concept of cultural heritage is at home at IPCH.

An example of an intangible component of cultural heritage that is at risk is Native American languages. We are working together with colleagues at Yale to teach Choctaw and Mohawk languages to students. This is an excellent example of how cultural heritage is about much more than art. It is cultures, languages, and traditions.

If you take a look at what our scientists and conservators are doing with the various technologies that are used at IPCH, it is like being in the same house but looking through different windows. This is what fuels this institute. No one discipline can find the answer alone.

— Stefan Simon

The threat of loss of cultural heritage in the new digital world is also a huge problem. We will lose a lot of digital data that we thought we safely saved on CDs or on other now outdated media. This can be compared to a black hole. We will lose a lot of what has been recorded in the last 20 or 30 years just because we continually underestimate the issues of digital preservation, which is about keeping digital technology up to date and making data formats compatible. What will happen if we lose five years of an important journal or The New York Times? I am very pessimistic about the preservation of cultural heritage in the digital sphere because we vastly underestimated this challenge. We think once something is digitized it is safe. We are uniquely positioned here at Yale to study cultural heritage because we have professors here in the institute who have affiliated positions in departments across the entire university, and who are continuously collaborating on projects that require new technologies and research.

How do the various labs at IPCH join forces on projects?

Collaboration is a key characteristic of IPCH. Cultural heritage preservation is about bringing key angles of perspective together. If you take a look at what our scientists and conservators are doing with the various technologies that are used at IPCH, it is like being in the same house but looking through different windows. This is what fuels this institute. No one discipline can find the answer alone.

Modern conservation is about accepting that there is change, and managing it in a way that is sustainable. And that starts by exploring the context of an object, how it was made, used, and how it changed over time. If you want to do that correctly it has to be by combining perspectives of various parties. This is another reason that IPCH is so well at home at Yale. This is a university, characterized by two main elements: research and education. In a typical museum setting, you do not have this neighborhood of interdisciplinary collaboration like you do here at Yale. Science, humanities, law, and culture all must all combine for cultural heritage preservation to be successful. It is like a melting pot here. Our great advantage here at IPCH is that we have all of these elements embedded in the physical setting. Ian McClure, chair of our Conservation Lab, designed the conservation lab to be a shared facility for collaboration. We welcome the fossils from the Peabody Museum in the same way that we welcome paintings from the Yale Center for British Art. It is a wonderful model. The physical setting at IPCH already sets a great precondition for collaboration elbow to elbow between the various disciplines.

How does the work locally at IPCH have an impact globally?

At the end of the day — and this is part of our mission here at IPCH — we want to improve cultural heritage preservation around the globe. We have our roots in New Haven and work closely with our colleagues across Yale’s collections using these as a laboratory for developing sustainable solutions for preservation, study, and use of heritage, which have an impact and advance the field of heritage science. Yale has become a leader in the international sustainability debate. We want to become a reference institution for sustainable preservation, inform the green museum debate, and advocate for linking preservation to the UN sustainable development goals in times of global change. This is an essential aim of the institute. And we have room to grow as we are a very young institute. I came here from the world’s oldest conservation lab to the world’s newest! It is probably the largest jump that you can imagine, from a 128-year-old conservation institute to one that was just funded at Yale. Because of the dynamics and the unique interdisciplinarity at Yale we have great conditions to quickly become a place on the international conservation map, collaborate with partners like the Getty Conservation Institute or the Smithsonian and develop a global impact. Also, institutionally, we are committed to open access to all the work generated within IPCH. If we focused solely on what we do here in our own place, we would not fulfill our mandate.  

The IPCH and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London were recently granted UNESCO patronage for a workshop. Tell us about that.

UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] is leading the efforts for the 1,031 world heritage sites all over the world. These sites are defined as our global patrimony.

We are very proud to have been granted patronage by UNESCO for our workshop on “Culture in Crisis” last year with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And we are continuing this collaboration as a satellite event to the UN Global Colloquium this April at Yale. Receiving endorsement by the world’s leading intergovernmental organization for the preservation of cultural heritage is a tremendous achievement for this young institute. We are witnessing unprecedented destruction and loss due the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and I think we should speak out on all channels against these crimes. We are looking forward to bringing many of the stakeholders in this struggle to Yale in April to listen to what they expect from us in terms of support and collaboration. These people are the ones who stand on the first line to defend our cultural heritage, and they are not defending it for themselves: They are defending it for the world.

What efforts must be made to ensure that there is a future generation of students interested in preserving cultural heritage?

This is another very important aspect of cultural heritage in terms of sustainability. We should not be laughing at the selfie generation. I, personally, have never used a selfie stick but they are everywhere now. We should not be critical or even dismissive, but realize that we have to make the concept of cultural heritage preservation interesting and exciting for the next generations. In order to do that, we have to take into account the expectations and the interests of this generation. When I think of the selfie generation, it will be largely up to them to decide how the preservation of cultural heritage will look in the future. And if that is with a selfie stick, so be it!

Educating the next generation of cultural preservation scientists is a hands-on, tangible apprenticeship. Here at Yale where we are educating the future leaders of the world, and we want students to leave the university with an awareness of what cultural heritage is — not even necessarily to become a conservator or a conservation scientist, but to understand the significance of what it means if languages are lost or how fossils are restored to reconstruct dinosaurs. We want them to learn and take this information with them.

I am very much looking forward to my first class in the summer course in the global summer program through the International Alliance of Research Universities. The class, “The Sustainable Preservation of Cultural Heritage: An Introduction to a Global Challenge of our Time,” will explore many aspects from international charters to the green museum. The students will learn about illicit traffic, authenticity and forgeries, energy efficiency in museum climates, and preventive conservation and management of architectural sites.

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