A California native, Timothy P. Whalen studied at the University of Southern California, where he earned a B.A. in art history and an M.A. in art history and museum studies. In 1981 he came to the Getty, working first at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, and later as assistant director for administration at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities. He subsequently served for five years as assistant director of the Getty's building program office, where he supervised and coordinated early planning and programming for the Getty Center project.
In 1991 he joined the Getty Grant Program, where his responsibilities included conservation grant-making activities. During the academic year 1994-95, he was a Loeb Fellow in Advanced Environmental Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he examined the role preservation issues play in urban planning and public policy debates.
In December 1998, Whalen was appointed director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
He is a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Los Angeles Conservancy, and the Southern California Association for Philanthropy. He was an advisory committee member to the Foundation Center and Council on Foundations' joint study of international grant making, published in 1997.
He spoke with Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: You came to the Institute after seven years with the Getty Grant Program supervising grants—including grants for architectural conservation and conservation professional organizations, as well as grants to museums for works of art. How did that work prepare you for your responsibilities here at the GCI?
Tim Whalen: One of the privileges of my previous job was that it provided me a perspective on the entire field, worldwide. I was constantly presented with requests that represented the needs of the profession. The job offered a unique view into virtually every aspect of the field—museum conservation, conservation training programs, the committee work of the professional organizations, regional differences, international support institutions, historic building issues, the needs of conservation scientists, and the extraordinary range of skilled professionals that make up the field. This gave me a view of the conservation community that I think very few jobs allow. I was fortunate to know people in architectural conservation, conservation training, and conservation research, and those people who ran the various international bodies or who were chairs of their nation's ICOMOS committee. It was a wonderful opportunity.
Did you see connections that perhaps others didn't see because they weren't looking at such a variety of areas in conservation?
Well, as an art historian coming from the museum field, I found that the experience certainly expanded my understanding of what conservation means. Conservation is a word that has so many meanings for so many different people. My years at the Grant Program helped me understand conservation in the broadest sense of the word. In my mind, it is not just caring for a collection or restoring an object. It's all the disciplines that contribute to enabling one to conserve that object. It's the work of curators and scholars who understand that object. It's the material scientists. It's the people trained as actual conservators. It's the scholar who questions the value of conserving the object. It's the people who manage information resources for conservators. It's really everyone who contributes to the preservation of heritage.
Is that concept of conservation one that the field has embraced in recent years?
I'm not sure. I sat in an interesting meeting recently with five or six very distinguished people from the conservation profession, and if any disagreement arose, it had to do with the definition of conservation. It seemed to me that half the people at the table thought that conservation was literal intervention, probably on an object. The other half had, I think, a much broader view of conservation, one that related to sites and cultural landscapes, open-ended theoretical research, and the constellation of professionals in between.
Would you say that this notion of conservation as multidisciplinary is one you'd like to help further as director of the Institute?
I don't know that it's my mission as much as it is what I believe. I know my colleagues here think along the same lines. We all see conservation as an interdisciplinary field. What is interesting is that we are part of a larger organization that happens to possess collections, and there are excellent conservators here whose jobs are primarily focused on the care and preservation of those collections. Somehow in some way people feel that to be in stark contrast to us. Our work may be different from that of our colleagues at the Getty Museum, but ultimately our goal is the same as theirs.
The scope is just different.
The scope is very different.
I've heard you talk about growing up in Southern California and how seeing certain things gave you a sense of history and place that probably shaped your interests as an adult and as a professional.
I grew up in a place that I saw change dramatically, a place where those things that best represented where we came from here in Southern California disappeared. For whatever reason, my own personal interests have always resided with the places people are drawn toplaces with which they connect. More often than not, those are places that have history and that people return to because of their genius loci, something that speaks to people. Whether the function of the place changes or not, people continue to be drawn to that place or thing. There's irreplaceable value to this—and those things and places must be preserved.
My own academic work related to the development of urban centers—Roman Baroque urban planning. So I guess my personal interests tend toward city centers and architecture rather than toward objects per se and the conservation of objects.
One of the most interesting lessons for me was owning a National Register house in Santa Monica. An Irving Gill house. The most important lesson was that historic places don't survive because the government buys them and keeps them alive. Historic places survive because individuals care passionately for them. It has, I think, nothing to do with the amount of money a place possesses. In fact, it has everything to do with leadership and the people who are the stewards of the place or the object. If there are people behind these places who care about them, it's not money that will save them—it's will. I know institutions that have a lot of money but nevertheless are terrible stewards of things. This magical Gill house in Santa Monica was not saved by people with lots of money. It was saved because it was in the hands of people who cared about it and wanted to keep it out of harm's way.
One of the most poignant things I learned was on a recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. There, in a place where there were very few financial resources—and oftentimes ideologies counter to preservation—the stewards of buildings were able to protect them despite lack of money because there was passion about them, and the courage and will to protect them.
How do you see the GCI being organized in the future? What things are going to be emphasized?
It's important to recognize that the GCI is part of a much larger organization, the Getty Trust, a foundation committed to the visual arts, to conservation, and to the understanding of works of art, principally through its museum and art-historical scholarship. The GCI is one of the Getty's cornerstones.
My view is that we are here to provide resources to others in a kind of philanthropic model. What we do is serve the field—in the GCI's case, serve the conservation profession. Our job is not to make grants or to give money but to undertake work that serves our professional audience, work that addresses unanswered questions. Again, that's the field of conservation broadly defined. We will continue to do that in areas in which we have great strength, including conservation science and field demonstration projects. There will be an increasing focus on education, an area we've moved away from somewhat. We'll also be focusing on dissemination of information about conservation through our publications—which continue to be very thoughtful and strong—and through new electronic means that we haven't pursued aggressively, particularly the delivery of conservation information over our Web site. And we'll continue publishing the very valuable and, I think, beloved publication known as the AATA. I don't see huge shifts in our areas of interest—perhaps a little more focus, and the promise that everything we do is in service to the profession.
What are your thoughts on GCI education initiatives?
Over the next year we'll look very carefully at how our resources can be used to advance conservation education. We will not pursue conservation training as we did in the past when we developed and delivered individual courses. Other organizations do that extremely well, and I think we should rely on the excellent work that they are already doing.
A project like our Latin American Consortium—which we're collaborating on with a number of training institutions in Latin America—in some respects may serve as a kind of model for our work. In that instance, we were able with our resources, both human and electronic, to convene a group of conservation educators to leverage their resources over the Web and help them share information about preventive conservation to a degree that would not have been possible without the collective involvement of the other partners. We need to look for opportunities where we can bring people together to address needs in conservation education collectively.
Over the years, the GCI has done a lot of work in archaeological conservation and site management. Is that, too, an area where you see continued activity?
Absolutely. We're involved now through our Maya Initiative in the development of a site management project. And we're beginning to consider whether there are solid opportunities for us to carry out a similar project in the Mediterranean, though it will take a lot of time and discussion to determine if there's something that we can contribute. Most important, if we contribute to it, does it have a residual lasting effect in the place? We have to know clearly why we're operating in a certain place and why we are there, rather than another institution. We have to look at our work strategically, and if we choose a project in a particular place, we have to make sure that not only are we bringing some level of expertise to the place but also that we at the GCI are learning something we can then apply to our own work. It's a two-way street. I worry about the colonialistic aspect of landing in a place and professing our expertise, when in fact there's all sorts of resident expertise. What we have done well is bring together multidisciplinary teams and worked with colleagues abroad to demonstrate the benefits of a multifaceted approach, particularly with regard to site management and archaeological conservation.
In the past, the selection of projects depended in part on their ability to serve as models for addressing similar problems or conservation issues in specific regions or even globally. I presume that requirement will remain.
A project must serve as a model. I don't see a future where we conserve something solely for the sake of stabilizing a site or an object. If we go in and conservation intervention is involved, it's the result of research we've done, and with our local partners, we are undertaking that intervention in such a way that other colleagues in a region can possibly emulate it and benefit from it. A project in which we simply stabilize a building or site because it's in need of care is not something that we as an institution can afford to do. There are other organizations that do that well and that are set up differently to do it, perhaps more effectively than we are.
A lot of the GCI's work deals with the technical aspects of conservation. What role do you think the Institute should play in looking at the intellectual underpinnings of conservation?
We can't operate as a modern conservation institute if we aren't considering the broader philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of the field. It's impossible. People forget that there's an infrastructure required to allow someone to undertake, as you put it, the technical aspects of conservation. To get to that point, all of those other issues—call them philosophical, call them pure research—have to be considered. For example, with our work in site management, clearly the economics of conservation play into it, because there are issues of tourism and of the values and benefits people apply to these places. Unless we as an institution consider those issues as well, and contribute to that thinking, we can't be effective. It has to be integrated into our work, because we have to be asking those kinds of questions, particularly in our fieldwork. We'll continue pursuing that kind of research. We won't have an entire group dedicated to it, but that in no way discounts how much we value that kind of thinking and that line of inquiry.
What kind of role can the GCI play in terms of leadership in the conservation field?
As a private, generously funded institution dedicated to conservation, we're in a unique position. As a result, we have a responsibility to serve. There's always been the risk that the Getty, because of its enormous wealth, would be perceived as able to solve every problem in all the fields in which we're active. That's obviously impossible. We have to be very selective, pursuing only those unanswered questions in conservation that we have the Financial, human, and physical resources to pursue. I hope we will do many things deeply and well. But we won't be active in every corner of the world.
I also think it's important to work with a recognition of what the Getty is and the extraordinary resources that are part of its collections. Take photographs, for example. Photographic conservation is an area where there's great room for advancement in the world, and it seems to me that this is an area ripe for development for us, because it's a natural interest of the Getty.
Certainly there has been much more emphasis in the last year on the Getty as one unified institution.
Ultimately the interests of everyone at the Getty reside in visual culture, art, and material culture—in either interpreting it, preserving it, or studying it. There's much commonality in that. We all ultimately focus on the same kinds of materials. We just bring different passions and interests to these materials. What I see happening at the Getty is really an increasing recognition of what we have in common, our common interests, rather than a focus on institutional differences.
Looking at the conservation field in general, where do you think the future challenges lie?
One thing—and this probably grows out of my foundation work—is a continued decrease in financial resources. That will remain a challenge. But the field is very nimble, filled with very dedicated people. What I think we're seeing is a focus on preventive conservation strategies—the development of means and methods that can take a much larger view of heritage preservation. For example, in archives or libraries, looking at how to protect an entire collection rather than an individual book. In the United States and in the West, that is the trend. I think we all realize, particularly at the Getty, that this is where our work and funding can be the most effective. And I think that is where it is most needed. We understand pretty well the mechanics of deterioration. But rather than looking at it on an individual or an object basis, the work of places like the Getty is going to continue to focus on how you can expand care for as many things as possible with as few resources as possible.
Collective conservation as opposed to the treatment of individual objects . . .
Exactly. I had an interesting discussion the other day with Larry Reger, president of Heritage Preservation in Washington, D.C., and he made the observation that, in his experience, if you bring legislators solid data about how you can preserve something at a macrolevel, they will listen. People understand that and may support that more willingly than individual intervention, even though most people are fascinated by the individual intervention because it's visually interesting and memorable. The institutions providing either technological or financial resources recognize that the future lies in the collective approach.
I also think that we need greater coordination and integration between institutions. We don't need to be "nationalistic." If one institution is working on a particular technology, then let them work on it and let us take up something else. There are, as we all know, fewer and fewer resources to go around. Some of the most interesting work that we have pursued here in the last three years includes collaborative projects with our professional counterparts, like ICCROM and CRATerre-EAG. We've had very solid results with that work, and we've been able to spread ourselves much more broadly than we would have otherwise. That's an example of where I think the field is going...