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Tomorrow Today

What impact is high tech having on museums and libraries?

We talk about that with Dr. Stefan Simon, Director of the Rathgen Research Laboratory for the state museums in Berlin.

Watch video 03:52


Can you actually bring back something from ashes. Or is the project to recover the fire ravaged books of Weimar's world-famous Duchess Anna Amalia Libraryoverly ambitious?

Stefan Simon:

It's certainly very ambitious. Just for the size, the amount of volumes, the money and the time, but it's certainly worthwhile; there's no alternative.

It's a painstaking, and it's an expensive method - is there any other way about it?

Well, there may be another way about it, but it needs to be researched; it needs to be developed, and I think that is the path to go. They chose exactly the good way to proceed.

Tell me about a day in the life of Stefan Simon. What do you do when you go into the office?

Well, we have a very exciting life. We have a lot of red-flag alerts, we have a lot of phone calls talking about insects and the collections, talking about climatization, climate issues, talking about light - questions especially important in the way, when we are designing new museums: what is a good material for display cases, what is a good lighting system? Now, you know, we have this big debate on the transition to LED - solid-state lighting. Is this a good alternative for museums? It's certainly cheaper, but is it also sustainable?

OK, there's a big debate in Germany right now about a green museum. What do you have to do with this green museum, or the idea of it?

I think, this debate is the most important challenge of our days. It's actually what was the creation of our laboratory 125 years ago as a scientific laboratory is now the debate of green museum. The green museum is a museum which has all the pillars of sustainability in its place, in its working and its setting, and the three pillars of sustainability are the society issues, like conservation, preservation - are the financial and structural issues - like who's going to pay for that? - and is of course, the ecology: the carbon footprint and these sectors. So we have to combine and to really respect all three pillars to create a sustainable museum, and that is the challenge. We cannot just build climatization in a museum, if we are not able to afford it in long term."

So it seems like they've made big steps. Can you talk to us about how preservation has evolved over the years?

It certainly became more scientific. 200 years ago, conservation was gluing a broken arm of a sculpture. But it became again the scientific components, and now, you can describe it as really discussing and exploring the context of an object - of an archeological site. We try to find a good decision to deal with it - to also respect the values - all kinds of values. But first we need to discover them, because an object of art has not only financial value - it has social values, scientific values, esthetic values. This is the task of the conservatist: to explore them and find a good decision how to proceed and how to rescue.

We have such an advancement in science and what we can do. Can you go too far in preserving or restoring a piece?

Yes, of course, you can go too far, because authenticity is also a very important value of an object of art. So there might be options to preserve something very well, but losing the authenticity. The conservator has to take this into account - to always balance conservation, accessibility and authenticity. But I would not say that the technology is too advanced. Actually, we are lagging far behind. If you compare our situation to human medicine, we are in the 13th century.

(Interview: Ann O'Donnell)