This interview is part of the Preventive Care Network's blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This edition of the blog is an interview that PCN Editor Wendi Field-Murray conducted with Jamie Lausch Vander Broek, Librarian for Art & Design at the University of Michigan. It coincides with the PCN column in the May 2023 edition of AIC News, which is all about the intersections of collections care and the five senses.
Hello Jamie, and thanks for speaking with me today! Could you describe your role at the University of Michigan?
I'm the Librarian for Art & Design at the University of Michigan and I also run our Book Arts Studio. I've been buying artists' books for the collection since 2015, and started the studio in 2016.
In 2018, you made the decision to acquire the "cheese book", an artist’s book created by Ben Denzer. Can you describe this object for our readers?
The "cheese book," which is technically called American Cheese, 20 Slices, is pretty much what it sounds like. It's a package's worth of Kraft American cheese bound into a hardcover book structure with a yellow cover. The only text is on the cover and spine -- the pages of cheese definitely speak for themselves.
American Cheese, 20 Slices, by Ben Denzer. Photo: Emily Buckler
What was the motivation behind its acquisition?
I acquired the cheese book in the late summer of 2018 after I received a cold email from the artist. He offered a list of his currently available work along with the promise of an inflatable book jacket so that I could read in the pool. It was so unlike any other prospectus that I had received from an artist, so I was intrigued and opened the PDF. When I saw the cheese book among the listings, I knew that I wanted to order it for the collection. I try to collect things that are interesting from a formal perspective because this collection is primarily used by artists and designers. Something that makes you consider all your assumptions about what a book is or could be is ideal.
Was there any concern about the risks of acquiring a food object for the collection, or any specific policies you have in place that made this acquisition a bit tricky?
I hesitated slightly because of its material content, and reached out to our head of conservation and preservation before I made the order. She is wonderfully detailed and clinical about things, so if she didn't want me to get it, she didn't say. She just answered questions about what it would mean from a conservation or preservation perspective to order it.
From the moment I reached out to her, though, there was a spark that ranged from interest/curiosity to outright disgust/anger every time it came up as it went through the process of entering the library system. The cataloger was of course the most fun -- "is it about cheese if it IS cheese??" and that sort of thing.
What is this object’s storage situation? Do you take any special precautions with regard to its use or storage compared with other artist’s books?
It went through a few experiments for housing initially. Conservation worked with contacts at the Detroit Institute of Arts on the best way to treat it, and for a while it lived in a tiny mini fridge with a window. But the parts of it that were a book did not like the fridge. Ultimately, we opted for a spare archival box that had been set aside after housing something else, so there's nothing custom about it at all. I was also sent a bag of silica gel packets and instructed to occasionally replace them and to bake the collection of them in my oven at home at 250 degrees to revive them. After people found out that I was using silica gel packets, though, I was sent so many that I don't need to take them home and bake them anymore -- I have a huge supply.
Most museum and archival storage areas prohibit food and drink because they can attract pests, mold, and other agents of deterioration. What happens when your collections are made from the very materials we are trained to prohibit? Are there specific things you and your staff are watching out for regarding the condition of this object?
I am irrationally proud of the cheese book's condition. Copies elsewhere have molded and the cheese has had to be discarded and even replaced. Ours is drying out, so there's nothing pristine about it, but it's definitely surviving. It seems to like its low moisture environment. It even survived an extended incident last summer when a repair to the building's boilers caused the entire library to become incredibly humid and cold. It was actually cheese book that made me certain there was a problem, because it has a little humidity monitor inside the box. I had been feeling like the building was strangely humid, but brushed aside my concerns. We have humidity monitors in our special collections storage area, but they're only checked periodically. I opened cheese book's box, and when I saw that the humidity was off the charts, I knew I needed to alert someone! We ended up needing industrial dehumidifiers in our spaces for several weeks until the project was completed.
I definitely check its condition more often than any other book, but at this point its care is pretty minimal. Periodically I open the box, check the level on the paper humidity monitor, and replace its silica gel packet. It is stinky in the way American cheese is, but it's mostly drying out and not gross in other ways. Later on, the artist came for a residency and made a meat book with mortadella from Zingerman's Delicatessen, and that was an entirely different sort of adventure.
To what extent to do you collaborate with the artist to ensure that this object’s care aligns with his vision for it as a work of art (i.e., would conservation treatment be appropriate or permitted? Are the “pages” replaced when they get dried out or moldy? Is there an understanding that it will eventually decompose, and your protocols for care are designed to accept that outcome?)
I definitely think the artists' books I'm acquiring are art, and in my experience, contemporary artists are much more concerned about achieving their idea than they are about the practical matters associated with its long-term preservation. I do think there are things like documentation for performance art or using archivally sound materials for physical work, but mostly I think we're thinking much more about how to keep, say the bits in order in a computer game-based artwork than the artist is. Wanting to make something is one thing and wanting it to last forever is another.
What has your experience caring for this object helped you to think about, learn, or realize?
I love how cheese book causes people to have strong opinions, because I curate a collection that can be on the periphery in most scenarios -- artists' books are a marginal medium in the bigger picture of art and also in the book world. Getting people to care about them isn't easy. Cheese book makes people mad! How cool is that?
It's interesting, though, because I mostly do try not to buy things that are at odds with themselves physically. If something is a great concept, but the execution is not so great, it's not going to hold up when a class is handling it again and again. And it sort of fails the test of being a book, because books are for people to use. If something is a cool idea but you can't actually handle it, then I think, nope! Back to the drawing board! So I might be making some exceptions to my usual process of decision-making with cheese book because it transcends these discussions.
If you enjoyed this post, check out this month's second PCN blog, an interview with Cecilia Bembibre Jacobo on "Olfactory Heritage" and how scents and our sense of smell are important to cultural heritage.