WHILE a 17th-century Rembrandt drawing may need only a little attention, says British conservator Mary Goodwin, a 1958 Peter Blake collage using chewing-gum wrappers, transfers, Victorian scraps, and all sorts of cheap glue, took up "a lot of my life." Ms. Goodwin even gave seminars on the complexity of its conservation - yet the artist is still very much alive.
Artists today use papers with "so many chemical additives, that they are not going to last," Goodwin says. Letters written in our times may vanish, depriving future biographers of them. She wonders "if we are going to become the lost generation."
Modern newspapers and magazines won't last, either, she says. Even encapsulating them in Melinex - as the United States' Library of Congress does - cannot be relied upon, according to her. (Microfiche is also used as a backup.) Photocopies, faxes, computer printouts, and one-hour photographs used for records - none is guaranteed to last.
US research, she says, has produced stable papers that, in theory, will last 300 years. But cost is prohibitive to many users. She says that recycled paper, obviously good for other reasons, is "very suspect" in terms of longevity.
In contrast, Judith Chantry of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, where storage capacities are becoming strained, wonders if we are storing too much paper material today. Do we really have to preserve every scrap of paper connected with an artist? she asks. Nor do we really know, anyway, how much paper material was lost in the past.
Meanwhile, Goodwin points out how little research has been done into the conservation of ephemera like bus tickets and theater programs: Collections of anything and everything are preserved in museums today.
She has come to terms with this paper-conservation "nightmare" for now, however, and finds it - in the context of more dramatic, world ecological concerns - "amusing."