How do you keep the cracks in Starry Night
from spreading? How do you prevent artworks made of hugs or candies from disappearing? How do you render a fading photograph eternal—or should you attempt it at all? These are some of the questions that conservators, curators, registrars, and exhibition designers dealing with contemporary art face on a daily basis. In Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum
(University of Chicago Press, 2020), Fernando Domínguez Rubio delves into one of the most important museums of the world, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to explore the day-to-day dilemmas that museum workers face when the immortal artworks that we see in the exhibition room reveal themselves to be slowly unfolding disasters.
offers a fascinating and detailed ethnographic account of what it takes to prevent these disasters from happening. Going behind the scenes at MoMA, Domínguez Rubio provides a rare view of the vast technological apparatus—from climatic infrastructures and storage facilities, to conservation labs and machine rooms—and teams of workers—from conservators and engineers to guards and couriers—who fight to hold artworks still.
As MoMA reopens after a massive expansion and rearranging of its space and collections, Still Life
not only offers a much-needed account of the spaces, actors, and forms of labor traditionally left out of the main narratives of art, but it also offers a timely meditation on how far we, as a society, are willing to go to keep the things we value from disappearing into oblivion.
This interview is part of an NBN special series on “Mobilities and Methods
Fernando Domínguez Rubio is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication at the University of California-San Diego.
Alize Arıcan is a PhD candidate in the department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her work focuses on urban renewal, futurity, care, and migration in Istanbul, Turkey.
Nushelle de Silva is a PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work examines museums and exhibitions, and how the dissemination of visual culture is politically mediated by international organizations in the twentieth century.