Getty Conservator Susan Macdonald on Cultural Heritage and the Significance of Concrete

Dec 11, 2020 12:22 pm

Q&A with Susan Macdonald, Head of the Buildings and Sites Department at the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles.

What were you working on before the Covid-19 shutdown?I was on-site in the Valley of the Queens. We had just begun to work on the tomb of Nefertari—a field project in collaboration with the Egyptian ministry of antiquities.

What did that project look like?Nefertiti’s tomb is typical of our field projects, where we work with partners in different parts of the world to conserve cultural heritage sites. We were researching the challenges presented by this very beautiful tomb. Such an undertaking starts with a team of people from various disciplines who work together to assess the site’s cultural value. Then, we determine factors affecting its conservation, and we develop strategies to address them.

What are some things you look for in a project before getting involved?We start by trying to understand key problems across the field such as lack of access to training opportunities, misunderstanding of how to handle historic materials, and excess tourist access at each site. We look at what others are doing and pinpoint where the Getty might be able to play a role in advancing knowledge and solving specific problems.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing you in your job right now?With Covid-19, the biggest challenge has been the inability to travel to seven of our sites in places like Egypt, Cyprus, and Italy. The pandemic has resulted in the complete cessation of the tourism industry, on which many sites rely as a primary source of income. The virus will have a continued impact on them economically for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, professionals there can do work that they otherwise haven’t been able to do.

There has also been more focus on social justice and issues of racial inequality in the United States. Interestingly, this has brought attention to other neglected or underserved communities and their cultural legacies. We need to investigate the policies that we use in heritage conservation in order to determine where there might be barriers of injustice and learn how to develop anti-racist policies and practices. There are particular types of heritage places valued by marginalized communities that have not yet been fully recognized, protected, and conserved.

More generally, climate change—with increased incidences of extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, and wildfires—negatively impacts cultural heritage sites. Luckily, there’s been more recognition in recent years that climate change is really affecting all of us.

What role has sustainability played in recent conservation efforts?There has been a lot of effort over the last five years or so to show how cultural heritage conservation can contribute to sustainability and vice versa. Preserving an historic site can contribute to poverty reduction and can bring direct economic benefit to the communities through employment opportunities in tourism operations, site management and care, and the establishment of local businesses. We are currently doing research in Penang, Malaysia, to establish the link between investment in conservation and the economic vitality of
the city.

What do you expect from the virtual conference “Conservation Principles for Concrete of Cultural Significance” hosted by the Getty?The event, which takes place on December second, aims to do a couple of things. One, to launch a new publication that provides guidance on how to conserve concrete. Second, to raise awareness about the material’s history and to recognize its importance in the twentieth century. There are many incredible buildings—Brutalist buildings probably being the most emblematic, like Boston City Hall and the Miami Marine Stadium—that are constructed entirely from concrete and demonstrate its heroic nature. We need to balance repairs with making these buildings sustainable and useful in a way that preserves their character and aesthetic quality.