Dissertation: Technologies of Reconstruction in Cultural Heritage

My dissertation is titled Reconstruction Acts: Experimental Science and the Epistemic Theatre of Historic Preservation. Through three case studies, I describe the experimental practices of scientists and artisans who digitally reproduce sites of cultural heritage. My archival and field research includes Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, Factum Arte’s facsimile tomb of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Seti I, and two sites of reconstruction in present-day Venice, Italy.

I argue that the technological deconstruction (and reconstruction) of art and artifacts anticipates future changes in the way that museums historicize and display the material past.

The digital reproduction not only overturns popular conceptions of originality, it situates the historical object into new systems of technical mediation and thought. These systems simultaneously depend on the manifestation of difference in experimental cycles of research, and in the accumulation of those differences as a new kind of universal knowledge that serves the museum and its curatorial practices.

Dissertation Case Study: The Fugitive and its Double

How the scientific restoration of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals created a new theatrical space of historical anxiety.

In 1962, Mark Rothko created five canvases for a penthouse at Harvard University. His goal was to create “a place” where visitors would be immersed in a tragic mise-en-scène. Rothko’s taste for theatre can be traced to his youth in Portland, Oregon, where he studied acting. His lifelong interest in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy also influenced his idea of painting as a mythic plot. Thus, Rothko’s  “rooms” can be thought of as an experiment in tragic mimesis, where representational ideals are held in tension with real feelings of life and death.

For the Harvard Murals, Rothko used a handmade paint medium so sensitive to sunlight that its colors quickly faded. The fugitive pigment was on the run. By the late 1970s, Harvard removed the damaged paintings and put them into dark storage. After more than twenty years, the murals were recently re-exhibited with the help of a scientific system that projects a color-compensating double onto their surfaces. More surprising is the choice that Harvard made to let audiences watch them turn the supplemental light system off. In the interval between “on” and “off,” a phenomenological theatre occurs where multiple temporalities collide.

Seeing the Rothko’s restored with light (video from the Harvard Art Museums).

Seeing a Rothko for the first time in 1962 (clip from an episode of Mad Med).