Preservation is Always

Earlier this week as fire consumed much of the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris the world watched with sinking hearts. The staff of Fort Ticonderoga watched with an added sense of pain and anxiety because it represented some of our worst professional fears and an event we plan and prepare for on a daily basis.

Of course accidents, destruction, and ruin are a part of any historic site. These events are often quite literally burnt into the histories of the places we preserve. Fort Ticonderoga suffered two catastrophic demolitions, purposefully set during wartime, in 1759 and 1777, in addition to accidents such as a fire that ripped through the officer’s barracks in 1760. These have forever left their mark on the structures of Fort Ticonderoga that survived them. From the ruins, objects present at these events bear the unmistakable and irreversible marks of this violence which forms a part of their history.

These events, however, were in the past. It is our job as heritage professionals today to prevent such damage. This work is increased in scope and nature by the collections of artifacts that have been accumulated by the museum over the hundred years we have existed as an institution. In addition to physical structures, we now care for textiles, weaponry, equipment, paintings, prints, manuscripts, and books spanning a wide range of ages and materials with their own unique needs.

While the catastrophic fire, floods, or other incidents are the worst nightmare of those in our profession, we also fight a much pernicious and often more subtle enemy, the constant march of time. All of the objects and structures we care for are subject to the degrading effects of time. These objects and structures represent a physical link to our past. We preserve and often protect the tangible and through them, the intellectual and emotional, reminders of worlds and peoples gone before us. This history is powerful, stirring, humbling, as well as challenging, and sometimes chilling, but it is ours as a nation, as a continent, as a species.

Fort Ticonderoga staff works hard every day to ensure that these treasures will be here tomorrow. Events like that in Notre Dame galvanize support and shine a light on the work of heritage professionals like collections specialists, curators, conservators, preservation architects, and others, but our work is ongoing. This is real work, such as controlling temperature and humidity to make sure the environment is right to slow harmful conditions. We ensure fragile components of objects are supported, that stresses on old materials are managed and that the opportunities for damage are limited whenever possible. We also prepare for the more catastrophic events by developing disaster management plans to implement in case of scenarios that we shudder to think of happening at our museum. We work with partners in state and national institutions to bring our practices and staff training up to industry standards and to prepare us, and other museum staff, to make the right decisions and follow these standards when tragedy does strike.

The support Notre Dame has received to rebuild and restore the cathedral is remarkable and heartening, evidence that we as a people value our shared cultural landscape. But it is also a reminder that it often takes a tragedy to activate this generosity. The cathedral had struggled to raise the funding necessary for restoration that was ongoing when the fire occurred. Delayed maintenance does not just leave a structure, or collection, looking poorer, it is often the cause of disaster. An example from Fort Ticonderoga was reported in 1774 by the fort’s commander who blamed deferred maintenance for the collapse of the supply room in the original fort. Today, Fort Ticonderoga deals with the constant talks of maintaining massive stone walls of the reconstructed fort, which combine 18th- and 20th-century history, against the effects of time and weather.

A case in point for us is the 1826 Pavilion overlooking Lake Champlain. This stately home was built for the owner of Fort Ticonderoga, who initiated the first historic preservation effort in the 19th century. Unoccupied since the late 1980s, Fort Ticonderoga has made progress to document the structure and plan for its future. The loss of the building, its stories, and its presence as part of the historic landscape through accident or deterioration, was not acceptable. It represents the challenges we face writ large. Fortunately, through private and public support we have been able to begin the work of restoring the Pavilion.

The news from France, and elsewhere across the world where accidents have caused the irreplaceable loss of artifacts and historic sites, gives us cause for reflection and re-dedication to our work. But it is also a time to thank those that have supported us, both private and public supporters, in the daily work we do as a cultural institution. This ongoing, never-ending, task of preservation and preparation is thanks to the support given by thousands of people from across the US and the world who pay admission, who become museum members, and who support special projects across the site through their generosity and belief that cultural institutions and historic places matter.

We encourage everyone to contribute to restoring icons like Notre Dame, as well as the historic sites and museums in their own communities, in the wake of tragedy. We also encourage the thought of ongoing needs of cultural institutions to prevent the conditions that lead to tragedy and give our staff the resources to do the vital and daily work of ensuring that the cultural patrimony of the world will be around for future generations.

To support Fort Ticonderoga’s work in collection care and historic preservation please visit (https://www.fortticonderoga.org/join-support/donate) or call Beth L. Hill, President and CEO, 518-586-1708 or email bhill@fort-ticonderoga.org.

Photos:
1. As stewards of cultural resources, we are answerable to posterity for the preservation of historic artifacts and structures. The Pavilion, begun in 1826, is just the most visible preservation project underway right now to prevent the effects of time, and anticipate accidents, to ensure these places will remain available and accessible for generations to come.
2. Catastrophic events leave their mark. This French cup and saucer bear the charred surfaces, cracked glaze, and globs of molten glass that speak to their presence during a dramatic fire, probably that which followed the French demolition of the powder magazine in 1759.
3. Today Fort Ticonderoga’s collection staff works each day to preserve thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection as well as our structures and historic landscape. Tasks as simple as monitoring climate and making storage decisions are part of the ongoing job of preservation undertaken each day at museums like Fort Ticonderoga.
4. After war, fire, and neglect, Fort Ticonderoga was a shell of its former self by the early 20th century. The founders of the museum faced significant challenges and decisions when restoring the fortification and our staff continues their work to care for both the original fabric of the fort and reconstructions from the 20th century.

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