Material items are made by people at particular moments in time and space. At later moments and in different places, other people may differently assess their modes of making. Items are not only materially active in themselves but are also activated by caretakers working within these temporal and spatial contexts. These might include community users, inheritors, subsequent owners, collectors, curators, and conservators. At times working in conversation with other caretakers, conservators employ specific categories, values, and tools to express particular relationships with the past. In other words, conservation is one way of contextualizing activity. The practice of conservation always takes place in the present, engaging with a past that it reconstructs for the sake of a future.

This encounter at the heart of conservation practice frames the presentation of items in this section. How might one consider the role of intention in evaluating the activity of matter? What constitutes desirable or undesirable change to an item? Whose intentions and whose decisions should be considered?

For as long as items have been made, they have also been restored and reimagined by those who respond to the items’ intended activities (consider corroding bronzes, broken ceramics, and damaged paintings). Conservators strive to find a balance between an item’s history and present expectations, working in conditions that include changing tastes and availability of materials.

What constitutes a desirable and undesirable change to an object? Who decides? And, if an unintended change later becomes desirable to preserve, when does that shift occur? The signs of wear present in mancala game boards, developed with use over time, are prized by players. Annotations and marginalia added to book manuscripts by their users similarly speak to such instances where later additions are valued and preserved.

The intended activity of an item may be deemed undesirable at a later date due to collecting contexts or as mandated by interests of preservation. How do conservators and others reanimate these forms of activity? What solutions have they pursued to do so?

For some items, an intended activity remains valued and integral to its ongoing conservation. Conservators collaborate with a variety of caretakers to maintain these items. In certain instances, this may take the form of social relationships fostered by the care of these items; in others, this mandates a rethinking of conventional expectations surrounding a work’s constitution, as in the case of ephemeral or participatory works.

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