Above: Continuous Conditioning Performance, 2017, video still, installed as a component of larger sculpture; Multiple Conditioning Machine, 2018, 28.5 gallons of water from all of the functioning (13 of 15) dehumidifiers at Old Economy Village, dehumidifier, three humidifiers, 19th-century style bucket made by Old Economy coopering demonstrator Bob Huber, Harmonist-made bricks found outside the boundary of the historic site, plants and cuttings on loan from Old Economy Village’s speculative historic garden recreation, LED flameless candle, candle holder from OEV giftshop, fountain pump, water turbine generator, plant watering drip system, maintenance request form, two-channel video installation: Continuous Conditioning Performance (49:06) and Cleaning Harmony (5:53); Becoming Historic Document Documentation, documented performances, 2017 (video stills) and four-channel video installation (2018); Becoming Historic Document Documents, 2018, inkjet prints, white gloves, file cabinet;
A Living History of Living History and Historic Maintenance*: November 30, 2017, *as formally agreed upon and approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Old Economy Village, 2018, 8:00:00 redacted audio recording, email correspondence, contractual approval paperwork, and 8-hour transcription performance
Above: Becoming Historic Document Documentation, 2018, video stills, Becoming Historic Document Documents, (2018)
... time and its allies are busy twenty-four hours a day assaulting our historic property. With a plan and the right tools, you can hold the line.
- “Housekeeping for Historic Sites” training video, Northeast Museum Services Center, National Park Service, 1996
Museum and archival maintenance standards often point to their own non-sustainability and eventual demise. Idealized “environmental conditioning” specifications fantasize an impossible reality: a world without dust, decay, bias, human error, or budget cuts. When does care for a specific memory, ghost, or object fade and become overtaken by a commitment to protocol, systematic procedure, and data points? Environmental and ideological conditioning often collapse and enmesh within practices of preservation. National mythology naturalized and propped up by places demarcated as worth the labor of remembering.
In 2017, I spent the summer and part of the fall at Old Economy Village (OEV) a regional museum and historic site to learn more about the living history of historic maintenance. Located along the Ohio River 18 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, OEV “preserves and presents the life, thought, and material culture of the Harmony Society,” a religious, utopian, and socialist separatist community that settled in Pennsylvania in 1805. Old Economy administers six acres of land including 17 original buildings and recreated orchards and gardens. The collection is home to roughly 16,000 objects ranging from original furniture and paintings to mail correspondence, an unfinished replica of the Harmonists’ public natural history museum, and the coded traces of practicing alchemists.
As a living history museum, the lines between historic and non historic object are continually blurred. The entire site and grounds become an historic object – living plants are part of the collection, an accessioned stand-in and replica of what no longer exists. The staff works to recreate life in the 19th century to the best of their ability with consistently declining financial resources, volunteers, and staff. Educators focus on the tasks that were required to maintain the original utopian project. They reenact outmoded forms of craft and labor for school children while enacting contemporary labor in the hopes of maintaining a more recent humanist project threatened by non-sustainability: the museum itself.
Maintaining Utopia examines the ritualized behaviors of care surrounding historic maintenance and the codification of history and knowledge. Developed from the my fieldwork at Old Economy Village, the exhibition combines video, photography, and sculpture to generate a new museum collection that highlights human actors, loss and fragility, the common reality of operating without enough information, and the skewed and incomplete nature of knowledge production – flawed and inscribed by the tools at hand.
Artist-in-Residence at Old Economy Village | Residency Blog Summer 2017
Above: spending the day volunteering with as many staff and volunteers that would let me shadow, interview and photograph them. From left to right, top to bottom: Sarah Buffington (Curator), Coralee (volunteer), Dean Sylvester (Historic Horticulturist), Sandy Carroll (Volunteer & Facility Rentals Associate), Elvin (Facilities Manager now retired), Jason Weber (Office Manager & Marketing), Sandy Smailer (volunteer), David Miller (Education Director), Michael Knecht (Site Administrator) and Joe Cangiano (Maintenance Repairman)