Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa is Associate Director and Head of Preservation and Conservation at the Harry Ransom Center. She worked in the Ransom Center’s conservation lab early in her career, before taking a job as an archivist at
the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, where she was introduced to the amazing range of media in archival collections. Since 2010, Cunningham-Kruppa has been working in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation as a project coordinator for an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project focusing on library and archives conservation education.
In addition to teaching at The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Delaware and Simmons College, Cunningham-Kruppa has a strong record of publication on preservation and conservation topics and a record of professional service including holding leadership positions within the national preservation and conservation community.
“I’m so excited about being back in contact with collections,” says Cunningham-Kruppa of starting at the Ransom Center last fall. “I feel like I’m coming full circle—coming back to the best.”
What is your vision for the conservation department?
My goal for the Ransom Center’s Preservation and Conservation Division is that it be one of the handful in the United States that others look to for the highest level of operations, research, and professional outreach. We have a strong, longstanding base upon which to build. The most critical priority though hits close to home. We have to ensure that the collections at the Ransom Center are cared for through a strategic system of preventive and remedial measures. Collections most at risk for deterioration must receive priority attention, whether that’s cold storage, transfer to a more stable format, conservation treatment, new housing, etc. These needs must be balanced with the robust exhibition program in place, because we need to also make sure that materials are ready to be exhibited.
Beyond that close-to-home goal is this prime opportunity to synergize interdisciplinary study of the Center’s vast collections. We epitomize interdisciplinary study in our little preservation microcosm: We are a mix of science, the arts, art history, and humanities. I would love to see a program within the Ransom Center that would reach out to the University and beyond, to scientists and scholars. Let’s say we want to understand a particular item in the collection more deeply. If that item hasn’t been fully understood in its context, and there’s an impetus on the part of somebody, we could develop an annual program with a request for proposals for researchers who are interested in this particular topic to work with conservators and curatorial staff to study the object. Whatever is learned from that comes out again through publishing, and allows for a really synergistic conversation to happen.
What are some of the new developments in the field? Is there new media that we’re not even thinking about yet?
There’s going to be—it’s never ending. I don’t know what the next thing is, but what’s been on our platter since the early 1990s is digital media. The amount of digital media we are producing annually is coming fast, and there are these access points where you want institutions and their stuff to be talking to other institutions so it facilitates discovery on the user’s part. Preservation has to feed into that—how can we facilitate that end goal? So it’s not just preserving the bits and the bytes; if we are reformatting the collections, we have to be cognizant in the creation of those images and how they’re created that they will serve all these different needs out there.
In terms of new media coming down the pipe, I’m wondering about the social media content. One thing we’ve found in my generation of preservation professionals is that we have struggled to become more facile in understanding the digital realm. For example, how do you regulate from a federal government standpoint the legal issues of preserving what some would consider the “cultural record” of social media happening through corporate entities such as Facebook. I don’t think social media has ever had the notion to preserve, and people have a lot of different feelings about whether they want their stuff preserved forever. As for art conservation, the field is grappling with mixed media art that has moving mechanical parts, and also often video or even digital components. You can’t preserve as a body all of that, so conservators are learning how to work with the artist to figure out what the artist was intending, and to get the artist to say what is the important part that needs preserving. What a challenge!
What do you think people don’t know about preservation and conservation?
I think people sometimes look at preservation and conservation and think we are gatekeepers to collections, in a bad way. That our job is to keep hands off or to box materials in ways that obscure what they are and to make it difficult for patrons to view them. I think what people sometimes don’t realize is that we have a first responsibility to the objects. It’s in our code of ethics; we are beholden to care for that object in the best way we can think of in this moment in time and space. But we do what we do always with the end user in mind, whether that’s today’s user or a future user. When we create a housing, for example, we try to make it as user friendly as possible, and if we do a treatment, it’s driven very much by what the curator is telling us about how it’s going to be used or if it’s going on loan. So we try to address immediate concerns but we think ahead—will it one day be digitized? Does that affect what I do at this moment in time? We are always trying to imagine the full realm of possibilities. I want people to really understand that we do what we do because we want today’s and tomorrow’s users to be able to get to that material, for it to still be there for them. But sometimes you do have to mediate that access.
Do you have a favorite item from the collections at the Ransom Center?
Right now I have a particular favorite that’s really dorky. I loved the movie Shark Tales. Robert de Niro [whose archive resides at the Ransom Center] was the voice of the shark character. That wonderful shark is sitting on top of one of the flat files on the fifth floor! So I’m kind of enamored with that shark. What does that say about me? But it’s an animated shark, not a mean shark. But it also opened up questions in my mind-we’re responsible for that shark. Do the colors fade? How do we dust the plastic? I love that shark.