20 September 2020

Research and sanity during a pandemic

by Marc Masurovsky


Together with millions of men, women and children around the world, we have found ourselves trapped in a reality that we did not invite or want. 200,000 American citizens have lost their lives to a rampant virus which has not spared anyone that it comes into contact with. Failed public policies, reprehensible personal lifestyle choices and political callousness have only exacerbated what experts say was a highly preventable health crisis. 


The pandemic has taken a horrendous toll--emotional, physical and economic—on entire communities across the US and around the world. Although wearing a mask has turned out to be a no-brainer cheap way to stem the viral onslaught, for many, it’s an affront. An aspect of human behavior which I cannot fathom.


On a personal note….


My bedroom/study has become my operational epicenter, a small desk on which all of my tools are assembled—laptop, external drives, headset, printer, pens, post-its, lamp, the requisite pile of books, small teapot, tea cup and phone.  I do my best to keep the tea from spilling on the electronics.


My interactions with the outside world are even more filtered and skewed than before, relying almost exclusively on the technology of available bandwidth and uplinks to gain access to the internet, cable television, and Netflix. Staying sane is priority number one, tied with staving off COVID-19. The two have become unhappy bedfellows. Wanting to be hugged and held tight as a sign of human contact and love appear to be far off into the future.


On a professional note….


How can one make a project move forward that is anchored almost exclusively in on-site archival research? The National Archives are closed, as are the Archives of American Art (AAA) and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM.  The same with museums, universities and libraries.  Fold3.com (a digital container which contains a comprehensive sample of critical records pertaining to plunder during the Nazi years) and other research-focused websites have proven to be (relatively) lifesaving (not by much, though), making it possible to retrieve relevant documents. However, those digital resources have now been exhausted. 


The shuttering of archives on both sides of the Atlantic has put on hold, delayed and canceled entire research projects, many of which rely on cohorts of researchers and analysts plowing through archives in Paris, Munich, Koblenz, the Hague, Amsterdam, and London, to name a few. Furloughs and layoffs of research personnel across borders and oceans have been the inevitable consequence, sadly so, especially in the precarious freelance and independent research community but also in research facilities, small and large museums alike, and other cultural institutions. The long-term damage of these surgical operations against human capital is incalculable.


Can research projects survive in such a restrictive environment once on-site research and consultation of documents are no longer possible?  Is the Internet really cracked up to serve as a digital surrogate of real life? In the case of deep archival research, the short answer is no.  Data aggregators compiling information about works and objects of art sold at auction for the past three decades provide some limited solace which only fuels more anxiety and apprehension at the thought of conducting in-depth research.


Worst case scenario: the research stops, I/we hoist the white flag out of resignation and surrender in the face of a hopelessly vain quest to gain access to and obtain research materials.  


On a happier note…


The pandemic has put to the test long-established and newly emerging networks of affection and affiliation that bring together researchers, museum professionals, historians, cultural officials, archivists and librarians in many different countries and disciplines.  I can report with great relief that, so far as I have experienced and witnessed them, the ties that bind have so far have seemingly withstood the test of fractured physical encounters as evidenced by the amount of virtual assistance provided by archivists and specialists (so far) in the United States, France, the Netherlands and Germany. They have generously shared thousands of images of archival documents in unexpected expressions of collegiality and international cooperation.  Zoom conferences can only do so much but are a pale substitute for face-to-face organic encounters in enclosed spaces.


On a more personal note, the years-long hoarding of print and digital copies of archival documents has proven to be extremely useful. Under non-pandemic circumstances, this behavior might be viewed as suspect and an outward symptom of a serious psychological disorder.  Still, these virtual and physical mountains of documents have proven to be a lifesaver as they contain much relevant information, in most cases with the appropriate archival citation.


The continuing bad news is that the global health crisis shows no weakness, travel restrictions remain in place especially between the United States-major culprit in sustaining the pandemic—and a host of countries around the world. The better news is that archives are reopening in Western Europe under less than favorable circumstances for sustained research. The same goes for libraries and museums. Access—albeit limited--is resuming under restrictive conditions.


The next few years are going to be extremely challenging. In our narrow niche we explore the devastations wrought against culture, cultural rights and cultural goods, and the complexities of locating and recovering these displaced objects wherever they are.  Access to documents and know-how is essential to unravel the interlacing networks that favor and shape the displacement and dispersal of these objects over time and space. Without access to primary sources and other research efforts, it is difficult and oftentimes nigh impossible to understand the what, where, when, why and by whom of the problem. In order to mitigate our inability to gain access to documents, it is imperative that we shed whatever reluctance and reservation we may have about opening and sharing the knowledge that we have amassed over the years. We need to make it available to those who need it—personal company included--, so that all of our efforts, individual and combined, are not lost and wasted and they can be sustained, strengthened and disseminated so that we may all profit for our own good and for the common good.


Stay safe… This too shall pass. But at what price?