Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Archives: Wonderful Worlds



Prosperous kingdoms with a substantial share in trade, importing spices, muslins and rare objects of unusual origin, go unremembered, not because the desire to read extraordinary tales is in disfavor, but on account of the tragic fate that befalls them. Simply put, most people have no knowledge of their existence. 

Like how memories fade, our collective memory atrophies when we fail to update the map. The burden of remembrance is then hoisted upon the shoulders of those tasked with preserving the majesty and grandeur of glorious civilizations and their extraordinary expeditions; so honest and high-opinioned that society would lament their absence if they only knew what was missing in the first place. 

Whenever newly renovated storage collection areas are built or renovated, custodians reexamine their collections. 

The task of reassessment begins with teams of curators asking themselves which stories deserve the spotlight. Generally speaking, each specialist has a favorite topic, something they feel the world deserves to know exists.

When the collection is presented to the public, crowds of curious-minded individuals flock in response, eager to feast their eyes upon the newly discovered treasure. 

Bolstered by fresh proceeds, archival custodians have the distinct privilege of shining the spotlight on that which was previously hidden from view, aging slowly in temperature and humidity controlled, artificially lit environmental vaults.  

While hundreds of thousands of treasures remain hidden from the world, a select few emerge to become legendary. They are the carefully chosen representations that make up our known global heritage. Selection is the primary gnosis of this restorative expedition where our collective prosperity hangs in the balance as curators determine what the world will recognize as treasure.  

The emergence of new objects highlights forgotten deserts and impregnable mountains prone to cool breezes. Together society rediscovers fertile valleys ripe with white gold, marble, and coal. In the case of The Land of G’el, which means “bright and gleaming” we might admire in fresco, what we presume were ancient gold mines. 

The inhabitants of that world are painted as white as the stones quarried in the background. The architecture behind the painted figures is vaguely reminiscent of ancient Assyrian architecture, but in the market scenes below the inhabitants are similar in manner to the Persians in their veneration of the mighty hippopotamus, an animal considered sacred to the sun.

Looking down, over the city centre, we see an elite row of privileged onlookers. They are the priests and the aristocracy. The population below is divided by their distinct activities, with gentry tending to the land, while courtesans are entertained by artisans. As ever, the under-privileged serve. 

Due to the presentation of orderly scenes, we assume this is a strict society. A public flogging is our cue for deeper understanding. It takes place while nearby criminals are lined up; banished toward Isles of Wisdom, which we see them walking toward, to the point of transparency as they reach the horizon line. The only ruin in the distance to remain opaque is the Temple of the Sun.  

Despite noted travails, we find beauty in our expanded vision of a world that was previously unknown to us. Released from its environmentally engineered space, this treasure and others now make up our collective understanding of the world. 

With white cotton, anti-static gloves, curators handle each object with care. The gloves keep finger oils from damaging the paper and artifacts while simultaneously preserving the archivist’s hands from conservation chemicals. Page after page, faithful stewards handle items in rooms free of radiation (in the form of light), paying special attention to ultraviolet light, which causes the paper to yellow and inks to fade. 

The needs of the reader are in constant contrast with the needs of the collection. Depending on the fragility of a given object, it might only be handled for an hour before it must be returned to its environmentally controlled space, lest risk irreversible damage. Archivists generally note drier skin and an increased need to remain hydrated due to the cool, dry conditions in which they work. 

Warm, damp conditions provide more usable energy and so increase the speed of decay. Library and archive materials are hygroscopic, readily absorbing and releasing moisture; expanding and contracting in response to diurnal and seasonal changes in temperature and relative humidity. These and many other factors must be taken into consideration when preparing objects for exhibition as dimensional changes accelerate deterioration and lead to such visible physical damage as flaking ink, warped covers, and cracked emulsions on photographs. 

It is worth highlighting this oddity because the world’s awareness of its global inheritance is directly related to the impact of changes in temperature and relative humidity upon an object. 

The primary questions curators are asked are those that often veer away from the beauty of discovery as the standard reference source toward that which is profitable. This tendency constitutes a legitimate constraint, for an object may require expensive individual repair, making it unprofitable to restore and present to the general public. 

In an attempt to answer which objects should be seen and which preserved, scholars become immediately fixated on universally agreeable standards of beauty, which is nothing more than a fool’s errand for no two people share the same sense of aesthetic beauty nor marvel over the same intrigues that mystify a solitary mind. 

Consider an analogy: 

In viewing the block prints in Italo Calvino's Le Città invisibli, no one knows what drove Zenobia's founders to place their city on stilts at various heights, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, but upon seeing images of cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather-vanes, jutting pulleys, and cranes, one instantly recognizes it was one of ingenuity. 

The appropriate consideration is one beyond profit, which cannot be conjured up at will. Like spirits from the vast deep, the world's treasures emerge not when we call upon them, but when someone decides to take them out. 

Like Zenobia, the treasures we recognize mirror the patron’s mood. Imagine you are a traveler in ancient Zemrude, walking along the streets, whistling a happy tune, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle. Due to the angle, you will know the city from below as you feast your eyes on window sills, flapping curtains, and fountains. If another traveler walks along hanging his head down low, his nails dug into the palms of his hands, his gaze will be held by the ground, in gutters and manhole covers, upon fish scales and wastepaper. 

One cannot say which view of the city is truer than the other, but sooner or later, a traveler’s gaze wanders and in doing so, the topography of the upper Zemrude is noticed. Upon seeing a large gap between these perspectives, the traveler becomes amused. The vista he sees is less mundane. In fact, it is delightful, unusual and wildly complex.

In olden times castles were the repositories of our most splendid literary and artistic collections. Lying in valleys, surrounded by wooded hills, on which stood the highest Châteaus in the land; fortified and formidable in both strength and magnificence, each was filled with rare treasures, most likely won in games of dice played between visiting courtesan and King. These objects were ultimately preserved in royal collections. Their imposing stature boldly displayed, or secretly enjoyed, according to the wishes of their chosen custodian. 

The collective works we hope to discover and, in the process, eloquently defend ...
There is a colloquial word for not knowing one’s ass from one’s elbow, but it is best not to divulge it, for once it is known, surely it will be the only thing for which anyone remembers this book. 

Choosing a suitable story for mass consumption is akin to original art, with judgment serving as a technique of single-viewpoint perspective. Similar to mathematical rules of perspective, judgment helps create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional worldview by giving an object meaning. 

Consider the Italian architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), credited as being the first person to make a mathematical study of the laws underlying linear perspective. Despite Brunelleschi’s well-known and widely utilized discovery, it was the art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) who set it out in writing for the use of artists in his treatise on painting, De Pictura (1436). 

From the 15th century onwards, artists of all denominations have rummaged through the archives of the past utilizing integrating obscure treasures into their repertoire of ever-evolving artistic creation. 

The problem of faithfully representing discovery is one that has engaged thinkers for centuries. From Albert Dürer’s (1471-1528) treatise on measurement which included a series of illustrations of drawing frames and perspective machines, to the many techniques used in modern times, choosing a concept ultimately boils down to a matter of judgment. 

Perhaps it is necessary to have Claude Lorrain's (1600-1682) tinted perspective of the subtle gradation of tones to produce what is now fashionable: a resurgence of original works called art’redone, which at their essence, express the values of the viewers. Whether those values are as dark as the Camera Obscura or as light as the Lucida, the taste for variance is a matter of society’s continuing search for ways to describe the world. 

In tribute to the highly inventive illustrator-artist,