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The contemporary art of documentation

Helen Nodding and Louise Egan
Condition Reporting Administrators


The role of Condition Reporting Administrator (CRA), created in 2007, was aimed at relieving some of the administrative burden upon conservators’ time and streamlining the overall process of condition reporting within the V&A. By focusing on clear digital images, this would not only reduce the need for annotations but also simplify the condition reporting/checking process for both conservators and couriers alike.

The overall process of putting in place a condition reporting system that suits the requirements of individual conservators has been a success. Condition statements are clearer and more consistent than in previous years with a large proportion being produced in digital format which can be saved as a PDF file and uploaded to the V&A’s photographic database VADAR. (1)

However, although this system works well for more standard touring exhibitions and loans, new challenges have arisen when faced with condition reporting for objects involved in the Contemporary Programme of exhibitions at the Museum.

The nature of much contemporary art is such that it often investigates and utilises new and unusual mediums/media as part of its design aesthetic. Such artwork and their materials may be unfamiliar to the conservator who is faced with decisions on how to display, protect and document the object to Museum standards. Additional constraints/challenges may include the following:

  • Limited installation time
  • Non-standard methods of display
  • Mobility of objects
  • Loaned objects arriving with little or no documentation
  • Dealing with contemporary artists, who may be unfamiliar with museum standards and practice
  • Undefined boundary between what should be considered to be the object (requiring a full condition statement) and its supporting equipment (requiring an inventory)

Working with a variety of colleagues including conservators and members of the V&A’s Loans and Contemporary Teams, part of the CRA’s role is to investigate ways of most efficiently approaching the condition reporting process without compromising quality or standards. One of the more frequent problems encountered during the installation of a contemporary exhibition is the arrival of several loaned objects with inadequate or no accompanying documentation. There then ensues a rush to produce a complete condition statement with clear images and an accurate statement that can be formatted, printed and produced for the artist/lender to sign before they leave the premises. One method of counteracting this is to (where time and location allows) undertake site visits to artists/designers studios and create a condition statement that can be re-checked and signed upon the object’s point of entry into the museum at installation. However, this makes the assumption that the artist/lender will not produce their own documentation.

Decode: Digital Design Sensations (8 Dec 2009 – 11 April 2010) with its range of interactive, mobile and time-based media objects prompted the creation of a specially formatted ‘artist’s condition statement’ which was sent to artists/designers prior to installation. The document prompted them to supply information they may not necessarily have considered important but would be of significance to a conservator when advising on potential display, cleaning and transit issues. The gathered data was then included in a modified version of the V&A’s standard condition statement and included:

  • Materials (please state ALL known material components)
  • Any concerns regarding light level exposure?
  • Maintenance (How often will the object require cleaning in order to achieve maximum performance?)
  • Expected wear & tear: Operational/Visitor interaction
  • Operation/Instruction manual available?
  • Play observations (TV/DVD etc.)
  • Visual observations (3D/Sculptural)
  • Handling guidelines
  • Packing and unpacking guidelines
Another issue that transpired during ‘Decode’ was the need to differentiate between what was considered to be part of the object (and therefore requiring a full condition statement) and what was its supporting equipment (that could be detailed in a simple inventory format). Valuable time can be saved if decisions of this nature are made between artists, conservators and exhibition co-ordinators during the preliminary stages of the exhibition planning.

Finally, the interactive nature of many of the objects in this exhibition meant that they were subject to ongoing wear and tear and potential damage. In such circumstances updating the condition statement can be a time-consuming task, highlighting the need for clear outlines on accepted levels of wear and tear to be agreed prior to an exhibition’s installation. Condition statements can become overly complex and sometimes illegible when too much information (both visual and written) is included. It is important to present this information in a coherent format so the courier is not swamped in a sea of digital images/annotation that can become meaningless. For the purposes of streamlining it was agreed that:

  • Where objects exist in multiple form, only one or two photographic examples need be included in the report (images of each side of individual pieces will be taken but kept in electronic format only - this should be noted on the front of the condition statement).
  • Multiple images of generalised damage (that does not look new) may be taken but will be saved in electronic format for reference only and not formatted as part of the condition statement.

In summary, with the challenges posed by the care and documentation of contemporary art it is important to work closely with artists/designers and experts across the museum to gather as much useful information as possible to be presented in the most efficient manner. The ability to create high quality visual records documenting the condition of an object means less dependence on written descriptions and annotations and an increased reliance on images to track any changes to an object’s condition. It is, however, important to remember that the purpose of a condition statement is to track change and document new damage only. Technology gives us the ability to both simplify and over-complicate our lives and it is important to find the right balance in making the most of its possibilities without creating unnecessary work when approaching the condition reporting process.

Notes

(1) Although condition statments are increasingly made entirely digital for touring exhibitions, it currently remains necessary for them to also travel in hard copy (experiments with exclusively electronic condition statements travelling with exhibitions are currently underway in the Paper Conservation Studio).